For a month now, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia says she’s been asking a devastating question: Where is my son?
The 38-year-old Guatemalan woman says no one has given her a clear answer.
“It’s not fair for a mother,” she told CNN this week, hours after filing a lawsuit against several government agencies and top Trump administration officials. “It’s like they’re putting a knife in your chest and killing you.”
More than a month after she crossed the US-Mexico border and a week after she was released from an Arizona immigration detention center on bond, Mejia is scheduled to appear in a federal court in Washington Thursday to make her case with only one goal in mind: getting her son back.
“I would like to know where he is. To go find him. To go bring him back. This is my priority,” she says. “I want my son.”
Seeking a reunion, and damages
Mejia says she and her son came to the United States seeking asylum, fleeing death threats and domestic violence from her husband in Guatemala. They crossed the border May 19 near San Luis, Arizona, according to the lawsuit, and were immediately approached by Border Patrol agents and taken into custody.
In her lawsuit, Mejia accuses US officials of violating her rights when they took her 7-year-old son, Darwin, from her at an Arizona immigrant holding facility just a few days after their arrival.
She’s asking a judge to order officials to reunite them, and she’s seeking damages for pain and suffering.
It’s not the only case to challenge the Trump administration’s months-long practice of separating kids and parents at the border, but it appears to be the first filed by an individual since officials announced their controversial “zero tolerance” policy.
On Wednesday a group of detained immigrants filed a similar lawsuit asking a federal court to reunite them with their children. And the ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit over family separations.
In an executive order Wednesday, Trump said he was reversing course and would be moving toward keeping families together in detention rather than splitting them up. But it’s unclear how the executive order could affect families who were already separated. HHS officials have said they’re awaiting guidance.
Mejia and her legal team say they’re still waiting for word on her son’s whereabouts — and when he’ll be released.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have not responded to CNN’s requests for information on Mejia’s immigration case. And the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, which runs shelters that house unaccompanied minors and children separated from their parents, hasn’t responded to a request for comment on her son’s case.
The Department of Homeland Security and US Customs and Border Protection declined to comment, citing their policy of not discussing pending litigation.
Their last days together
Mejia pointed to two photos of her son this week as she spoke with reporters and pleaded for help with her case: a smiling selfie she said she snapped at their church in Guatemala, and a black-and-white photo US immigration authorities took after taking them into custody.
In that photo, Mejia is carrying her son on her back. She’s smiling. He’s sleeping, his head resting on her shoulder.
It was just a few days later, she says, that their world turned upside down.
Mejia says she never expected officials would take Darwin from her. The day they did, she says, they offered no explanation. They simply called his name, took him away and wouldn’t answer any questions, she says.
According to the lawsuit, when officials took away her son, “he was screaming and crying and did not want to be taken away from his mother.”
Mejia says that was the last time she saw him.
‘They don’t give anyone any answers’
Mejia was held for weeks at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, where she says she met many other women who were also frantically searching for their children after being separated at the border.
“They don’t give anyone any answers,” she says, though she says she did hear one official respond with a question: “Who sent you to come to my country?”
At one point, according to the lawsuit, an officer at Eloy told Mejia her son was being held at a facility in Phoenix, Arizona, but Mejia says officials provided no additional details on his whereabouts.
Mejia was released from custody June 15 after an immigration bond company, Libre by Nexus, paid her $12,500 bond. A legal division of the company is representing her in court.
The bond payment and legal representation are being provided pro bono as part of a program for indigent clients, Nexus Services CEO Mike Donovan says.
The company has faced accusations of exploiting immigrants and is reportedly under investigation in several states over its practices.
Asked about the allegations, Donovan says Mejia’s case is just one example of how his company’s actions speak louder that any words.
“I care about people. I want mass incarceration in this country to end. And I want incarceration without justification, and incarceration of little kids, especially, to end,” he said.
Mejia says she’s been living with a friend in Austin, Texas, since her release from custody, but traveled to Washington this week for the court hearing. She was accompanied by her lawyers and representatives of Libre by Nexus when she spoke to CNN.
At one point on Wednesday, a day after filing the lawsuit, Mejia’s legal team says they got word that her son would be released. Mejia was thrilled, Donovan said.
“She was crying, shaking, very emotional,” he said.
Hours later, Donovan says he had to tell Mejia devastating news. Officials had decided to keep Darwin in custody; according to Donovan, they didn’t say why.
Donovan called the development “alarming and frustrating,” adding that Mejia and her legal team were still planning to head to court Thursday.
His voice on the phone sounded different
Mejia says she’s afraid something has happened to her son during their time apart. She’s only been able to speak to him on the phone once. That day, she says, an official helped them get in touch after she passed her credible fear screening — a step that cleared the way for her to continue with her asylum case.
The voice on the other end of the line, she says, didn’t sound like her son at all. Her normally vibrant child didn’t call her Mami like he usually does, she says. In fact, he didn’t say much at all.
“I didn’t recognize him, because he didn’t talk to me like that before, with sadness, a knot in his throat,” she says.
She asked how he was. “Fine,” he told her. But right away, she says she sensed that he wasn’t.
“He is already different. I don’t know what’s happening,” Mejia says. “I don’t know if he’s being threatened or what is happening with them, because my son was not like that.”
Since then, Mejia says, she’s tried repeatedly to call the number officials gave her to track down her son. It rings and rings, she says, but no one answers.