About 50 people are led to a holding area after they crossed the U.S. border in El Paso seeking asylum in June 2019. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“Border Patrol Agents Rescue Woman in Labor,” the release from Customs and Border Protection read on Friday.

What border officials didn’t mention was that, just hours after their purported rescue, they separated the Honduran immigrant from her newborn and detained her pending possible removal, according to lawyers and advocates.

Border agents responding to a 911 call Wednesday night found the woman shortly after she’d delivered her baby alone in a field in Eagle Pass, Texas. The officials first transported mother and child to a nearby hospital, then the child was airlifted to a neonatal intensive care unit in San Antonio, hours from where they are holding her mother in custody.

(The Customs and Border Protection release incorrectly said the call came Thursday, and agents apparently provided the hospital with the wrong date of birth — errors that appeared in earlier reporting.)

“They told her she was going to be sent back to Mexico without her baby,” said Amy Maldonado, who is legally representing the mother. The woman’s cousin is in Sacramento and spoke with her by phone from detention. The newborn is a U.S. citizen.

Neither acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan nor agency spokespeople responded to requests for comment before publication Friday.

Hours later, Austin Skero, chief patrol agent for the Del Rio sector, responded in a tweet to The Times, saying that agents had to separate the mother and baby due to the San Antonio hospital’s COVID-19 policy for the neonatal unit, which the hospital immediately disputed.

Skero suggested that the mother may soon be released from Customs and Border Protection detention in Eagle Pass, transported to San Antonio and reunited with her newborn.

“When the hospital advised the child’s condition was improving, and may soon be released, agents began processing the mother for release,” he tweeted. “Upon release, the mother will be transported to San Antonio and reunited with her child.”

According to Skero, “Due to strict COVID-19 restrictions in the neonatal intensive care unit, the mother could not join the child in the aircraft or at the hospital.”

Leni Kirkman, spokesperson for University Hospital in San Antonio, told The Times in an interview the statements were not correct.

“That is definitely not the hospital policy,” she said. “We do not separate babies and parents.”

Even during a surge in COVID-19 cases in Texas, “which fortunately we’re not in now,” she said, “the parents of NICU babies got to be with their baby. That was not something we backed off on. Babies need to be with their parents.”

Whatever transport Customs and Border Protection may have used — the hospital doesn’t own any planes — Kirkman said, “it has nothing to do with our hospital.”

The hospital’s COVID-19 policy for the neonatal ICU, publicly posted on its website, also states:

“To ensure a safe care environment, University Hospital is currently permitting one visitor per day between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. with the exception of individuals deemed necessary to the patient’s care. Visitors deemed necessary to the patient’s care include:

According to the initial release from Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security Department parent agency to Border Patrol, the woman and her newly delivered baby “were both in need of medical assistance.”

“A Border Patrol EMT provided critical care to the mother, a Honduran national and her newborn until EMS arrived on scene, EMS transported the family to a local hospital for further evaluation and treatment,” the statement said. “After receiving medical care, the infant and her mother will be processed as per CBP guidelines.”

As for the mother’s account that agents told her she’d be sent back to Mexico without her baby, Skero, the Del Rio sector chief, said: “My agents did not tell her that.”

Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive of Every Last One, a nonprofit, said the hospital informed her that the baby has to be in the hospital for another seven to 10 days and was “in distress” when born.

Almost exactly three weeks ago, Cohen responded to a similar case of a mother who had an emergency birth for a ruptured uterus, and Customs and Border Protection kept her apart from her baby for roughly four days, Cohen said. She’s since been released from detention.

“These babies need their mothers,” Cohen said. Speaking of the Honduran mom, she added, “And we doubt she’s going to get much postpartum care in CBP detention, a breast pump or anything to treat any injuries she has from giving birth by herself in the desert.”

The Honduran mother, whose name was not released, had sought asylum at the border in south Texas earlier this year with her older child, but border officials put them into the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program, officially termed the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, sending them back to Mexico and giving them a notice to appear in court on May 5.

Under MPP, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been forced back to dangerous Mexican border towns to await hearings in the United States, some for more than a year. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration closed the U.S.-Mexico border in March to all nonessential travel and indefinitely postponed most MPP hearings. The family has another court hearing in December, Cohen said.

The mother, like hundreds of other parents waiting in refugee camps along the border, sent her other child across alone to seek asylum, according to Maldonado. That child has been released from the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Health and Human Services agency charged with the care of unaccompanied children, and is with the cousin in Sacramento, she said.

“She was desperate,” Maldonado said of the mother’s decision to cross later herself.

Maldonado said that she and other advocates, along with Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Maldonado’s representative, are trying to reach the mother in Customs and Border Protection custody in Eagle Pass in order to give her forms that would allow the sharing of medical information about her newborn, who is reportedly ill, as well as for the mother to access her legal representation.

The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the Homeland Security Department over its “treatment of pregnant people, or people in active labor, delivery, or post-delivery recuperation in CBP custody or subject to the MPP,” and, according to a spreadsheet produced by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in response to a public records request, at least 45 incidents occurred with pregnant women in the agency’s custody from January 2017 to last year.

The Homeland Security inspector general has also opened an investigation into the department’s treatment of pregnant women. According to an April report from the Government Accountability Office, more than 100 complaints were filed about Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s care of pregnant women from January 2015 to April 2019.

“Anyone who is pregnant requires heightened medical care,” Mitra Ebadolahi, senior staff attorney for the ACLU, said in a January statement about the complaint. “CBP and Border Patrol detention facilities are categorically unsuitable to provide this level of care.”

Invoking the pretext of the pandemic and just weeks away from the November election, Trump officials have sought to speed up removals of immigrants.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.





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