In May, Sirley Silveira Paixao and her 10-year-old son arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border after fleeing their home country of Brazil and were detained at a frigid federal detention facility in El Paso, Texas.
“The floor was so cold, I gave my blanket to my son to lay on the floor and his blanket to cover himself,” Paixao told The Daily Beast through an interpreter.
But their situation only got worse from there.
Two days after arriving in the U.S., Paixao’s son, Diego, was taken away from her under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. During her first phone call with Diego on June 14, Paixao “cried so heavily that her son was unable to recognize her voice,” according to court records.
Paixao has been separated from her son for over a month—and now she’s suing the federal government to get him back. The heartsick mom filed a lawsuit Monday night in the Northern District of Illinois calling for Diego’s immediate release from the government’s custody. Her lawsuit lists Attorney General Jeff Sessions, six other federal officials, their agencies, and a nonprofit that controls a shelter for immigrant children as defendants.
Even though Paixao has submitted fingerprints and a 35-page “family reunification packet” to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement—an office within the Department of Health and Human Services that has custody of Diego and over 2,000 children who’ve been separated from their parents—the agency hasn’t set a date for Diego’s release.
Paixao claims the government can’t hold her son as an “unaccompanied minor” or “unaccompanied child,” when he has a fit parent who entered the country with him, according to court records.
“The government has undertaken this forcible separation without any showing, or even any allegation, that the parents are unfit or otherwise unable to take custody of their children,” the lawsuit says.
It also alleges that Customs and Border Protection confiscated medication Diego was taking for an illness and prohibited him from having it once in custody, causing him to develop a high fever and vomit repeatedly.
“Mr. Paixao worries about her son constantly and does not know when she will see him again. She is desperate to be reunited with him,” according to the complaint.
Diego has been staying over 900 miles away from his mother at a Heartland Alliance shelter in Chicago since May 24. His mom, who was released from federal custody on June 13 and is living in Boston with a friend, communicates with her son through biweekly, 10-minute phone calls.
“He constantly asks me to take him out of there, and to bring him home. I ask him what he does, what he eats, what activities he does, and what he studies. He’ll tell me about that, but it’s not enough time to talk to him for 10 minutes out of his day,” Paixao said.
The 30-year-old mother was able to see her son for an hour during a heart-wrenching visit last Thursday at an off-site location in Chicago. Government officials told Paixao that ORR has not decided whether Diego should be released, according to the lawsuit.
“He was very emotional, and he was happy to see me, and he even thought I was going to take him home that day,” she said. “He asked me again and I told him, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow.”
Paixao added, “He asked me, ‘But when? Give me a date.’”
Despite last week’s federal district court ruling that gives the Trump administration 15 days to reunite infants under the age of 5 with their families and 30 days to reunite immigrant children ages 5 and older, officials have lacked transparency about the reunification process. HHS has even stopped releasing updates on the number of separated children its still holding.
When asked about Diego’s status, a representative from HHS told The Daily Beast the agency “does not identify individual UAC [unaccompanied alien children] and will not comment on specific cases.”
HHS classifies children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border as unaccompanied minors. For Paixao and other parents, that means they must endure the same “arduous” process as sponsors in order to be reunited with their kids, according to Jesse Bless, Paixao’s lawyer.
“They force mothers to undergo the same process as a sponsor for an unaccompanied minor would have to go through, which is arduous,” Bless said.
Paixao is in the process of applying for asylum, but reunification with Diego remains her top priority.
“The mothers have been unable to deal with the trauma that’s caused them to leave and pursue that with the government, because they have to invest so much time and effort just to reunite with their children,” Bless said.