Border Fence

Some 2,300 children were split from their parents since early May under a zero-tolerance policy for those who cross illegally.

In the middle of the night, a Border Patrol agent took Envil Valenzuela’s 9-year-old son away from him.

Since then, Valenzuela and his son have been trapped in a bureaucratic maze where neither one can see the other. And at least 2,000 other people may find themselves in a similar situation after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months.

Less than 12 hours after Valenzuela’s son was taken from him June 20, President Trump issued an executive order largely halting the separation of families caught illegally crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 2,300 children were split from their parents since early May under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy for illegal border crossers.

Border Patrol agents arrested Valenzuela on June 18 as he and his son crossed the border illegally near Lukeville, southwest of Tucson, U.S. District Court records show. Defense lawyer Guenevere Nelson-Melby said Valenzuela, 31, and his son crossed the border with hopes of claiming asylum after their lives were threatened in Guatemala.

An hour after Trump’s June 20 order, a federal prosecutor said parents facing a misdemeanor charge and a time-served sentence in Operation Streamline, a fast-track program for illegal border crossers in Tucson’s federal court, would be reunited with their children a few hours later at the main Border Patrol facility in Tucson.

Although Valenzuela’s hearing was scheduled for that day, he was not one of those parents. Instead, he faces time in prison on a felony charge of crossing the border after a previous deportation. His hearing was postponed for a month in the wake of Trump’s order.

Eight days went by as Valenzuela sat in detention in Florence without knowing his son had been taken to a facility on the other side of the country, Nelson-Melby said.

“He had no idea where his son was,” she said after visiting Valenzuela at a detention center in Florence on Thursday, adding he gave her permission to share his story.

She located his son at a facility in New York state, where the boy also was left in the dark about where his father was and couldn’t contact his family.

“They just shipped him there and didn’t tell anybody,” she said.

After the boy was located, Valenzuela’s wife in Guatemala contacted him Wednesday, but Valenzuela has no money in detention to make long-distance calls, Nelson-Melby said.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Southern California pushed back on Trump’s executive order, which was aimed at stopping separations, rather than reuniting families that already were split. In a June 26 order, Judge Dana M. Sabraw directed federal agencies to reunite those families.

For children who are at least 5, such as Valenzuela’s son, the judge said they must be reunited within 30 days. And parents must be able to speak by phone with their children within 10 days.

Some of Valenzuela’s relatives who are U.S. citizens are trying to have the boy placed with them, but they were told it would take a month to do a background check before they can contact the boy directly, Nelson-Melby said. After family members are vetted, they will be allowed two phone calls per week with him.

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She expected Valenzuela’s son would be released to family members in about five weeks.

Nelson-Melby said Valenzuela wouldn’t know where his son was if he didn’t still have a court-appointed defense lawyer to look into it. Nobody was assigned to help the boy and the Guatemalan consulate did not answer his calls for help.

She said she was “happy to do it” but tracking down her clients’ children “is not my job.”

In a recent training at U.S. District Court in Tucson on family separations at the border, she was told children are considered unaccompanied minors as soon as they are separated from their parents, she said.

The process for unaccompanied minors is “extremely slow,” she said. A file is not opened on a minor for several weeks, which means they are detained without due process during that time.

But her criminal clients are entitled to a hearing shortly after their arrest to discuss detention, she said. “The children are not being given the same due process that we’re giving accused criminals,” she said.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar