EL PASO — Ten months ago, Maria Vandelice de Bastos and her 16-year-old grandson arrived at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in nearby New Mexico. The pair told federal agents they were seeking asylum.
Though Vandelice de Bastos passed a standard screening for such claims, known as a credible fear interview, she and her grandson were soon separated and she hasn't seen him since, according to her attorney.
While she sits in a federal detention center in El Paso, Matheus da Silva Bastos, who has severe epilepsy and autism, is more than 2,000 miles away at a state-run center in Connecticut.
Despite claims from the Trump administration that it is only separating families seeking asylum who cross the border illegally in between ports of entry and only began doing so recently, Vandelice de Bastos's case appears to prove the exact opposite.
What's more, caretakers of Matheus in two different states have urged federal officials to reunite him with his grandmother, records show.
De Bastos' attorney, Eduardo Beckett, said his client told authorities during her credible fear interview that she and her grandson fled Brazil after off-duty cops threatened her for exposing what she said were the horrible conditions in the school her grandson attended.
“She made noise, she went to police and to the prosecutor, and then to the press. The principal got fired and the principal happened to have a brother who’s a cop,” Beckett said. “So, the cop went and paid her a visit and said, ‘We’ll see what happens to you.’ That’s the case in a nutshell.”
Soon after arriving, Vandelice de Bastos and Matheus were separated, and ever since, he’s been in the custody of different organizations that care for immigrant children. Though she had papers from Brazil that identified her as Matheus' legal guardian, he was classified as an unaccompanied minor because his grandmother was deemed an inadmissible alien by Customs and Border Protection officers, according to a copy of the Department of Homeland Security report completed last August.
"She never lied"
Beckett said his client once had a visa to legally visit the United States. For years, she was allowed to go back and forth from her home country and did so freely until she was stopped by CBP officials at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in 2007. That’s when Beckett said she admitted to doing what thousands of visa holders do every year: working in the underground cash economy. According to her paperwork, she worked as a babysitter for $300 a week, triggering her deportation. But the only thing unusual about what she did was admitting to it, Beckett added.
“She never lied, she always told the truth and she never tried to sneak into the country,” he said.
Even still, the Department of Homeland Security makes clear that entering the United States is a "privilege, not a right."
“The most obvious reasons for denied entry include if a person has previously worked illegally in the U.S., is suspected of being an intended immigrant (i.e. planning on staying in the U.S. past the terms of their admission), or of having ties to terrorist or criminal organizations,” a CBP web page reads.
After Vandelice de Bastos was denied re-entry, she signed a notice that she was prohibited from “entering, attempting to enter or being in the United States” for five years.
“She did her time and she waited almost 10 years before coming back,” Beckett said. “The only way they can reinstate a removal order is if she came illegally, but she wasn’t trying to come in between the ports,” he said.
The DHS report from last August states she had no known criminal history in the United States at the time she and her grandson sought asylum, and the only length of her time in the country illegally was “at entry.”
But even if she had an existing deportation order, Beckett said her asylum claim would supersede that under federal law.
“That’s the whole point,” he said. “They should not have been separated.”
Both the the El Paso and San Antonio offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to requests for comments about the case.
A CBP spokesperson in Washington, D.C., said that it’s not current policy to separate families unless they enter without inspection between the ports of entry. When told about Beckett’s clients, she referred the Tribune back to the regional ICE offices in Texas. The spokesperson added that the agency complies with all applicable Americans with Disabilities Act policies when it processes persons with disabilities.
During her time in Brazil, Beckett said, his client took custody of her grandson after his parents abandoned him and moved to the United States, where where the boy's mother currently lives legally. According to the state-run center in Connecticut, his parents are unable to care for him because they work full-time and can't give him the round-the-clock care he needs.
In a copy of the judgement from the state of Goías in Brazil, Vandelice de Bastos’ petition states that Matheus has “a serious disease, [uses] continuous medication and needs special care.” It adds that his parents “do not contribute for the child’s support” or “telephone to hear about their child.”
Officials in the state-run facility that now care for Matheus have pushed for his release.
“Matheus was raised and cared for by his grandmother while in Brazil and is now having a lot of difficulties in his new environment,” reads a letter from the state Department of Children and Families in Connecticut. “Having his grandmother present would be beneficial.”
The government-funded organization that took custody of Matheus before he was transferred to Connecticut has also urged for his grandmother's release.
“While minor was in our care and even upon minor’s release, his overall well-being has significantly suffered due to be separated from his grandmother,” Yunuen Rodriguez, a family reunification specialist with the Heartland Alliance in Chicago, wrote in November 2017. That group is funded through the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Beckett has since filed more paperwork with the immigration court to prove his client should not be deported. But he knows it’s a challenging case because the judge has already cast doubts that Vandelice de Bastos has a legitimate asylum claim.
Asylum seekers must prove they face persecution in their home country due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Beckett said the fact that Vandelice de Bastos spoke out against her grandson's school and outed the administration could be an act of political expression, and he said the fact that she was threatened by police means they aren’t capable of or willing to protecting her.
But in an audio recording of the immigration proceedings from earlier this year, Judge William Abbott said the cops weren’t acting in their official capacity.
“You’re not going to be able to show the government acquiesced,” he said. “It does not meet the requirements for either one of the applications [for asylum]. The fact is that the individuals that seek to harm her are two private individuals who are mad at her and want to retaliate. An act of persecution cannot form the basis for membership [of a social group].”
According to federal statistics, asylum seekers from Brazil traditionally have a low rate of success. In 2016, 366 Brazilians applied for asylum. That same year, only seven application were granted while 36 were denied. Several more were either denied, abandoned or withdrawn.
Asked what would happen to Matheus if his grandmother is deported, Beckett said the government would have custody of him until he’s 21.
“After that, who knows,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Matheus da Silva Bastos' parents live in the U.S. legally. His mother currently lives in the U.S. legally.