The U.S. government says it will deport a Honduran mother and her two sick children, both of whom are currently hospitalized, to Guatemala as soon as it can get them medically cleared to travel, according to court documents and the family's advocates.
The family's advocates accuse the U.S. of disregarding the health of the children, ages 1 and 6, to push forward a plan currently being challenged in court to send planeloads of families to different countries so that they can seek asylum elsewhere.
Both children have been hospitalized in recent days in South Texas' Rio Grande Valley. In court papers, the U.S. government has said it intends to deport the family to Guatemala on Tuesday, pending clearance "from a medical professional."
"The mother is desperate. She thought her baby was going to die," said Dr. Amy Cohen, a doctor who monitors the government's compliance with a landmark court settlement governing how migrant children are treated known as the Flores agreement.
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"Whenever the baby coughs, her whole body shakes," Cohen said. "The 6-year-old looked exhausted. Everyone looked malnourished."
According to Cohen, the family says both children were healthy when they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization in late December.
A lawsuit filed by the family says they were taken first to the U.S. Border Patrol's processing center in McAllen, Texas, a former warehouse where migrants are held in large fenced-in pens, then to a complex of tents built at the port city of Donna, where they were held for several days longer than the Border Patrol's own 72-hour limit to detain people.
The lawsuit blames the children's illnesses on inadequate medical care and the food served at the Donna tents, which they describe as burritos twice a day and a sandwich at night. The 1-year-old has diarrhea and a fever, while the 6-year-old was diagnosed with the flu, an illness that caused the death of a 16-year-old teen held in Border Patrol custody last year.
President Donald Trump's administration struck a deal last year with the Guatemalan government to take in asylum-seekers from Honduras and El Salvador, and has since said it will send Mexicans to Guatemala as well. The U.S. has also announced similar deals with Honduras and El Salvador. As of earlier this month, about 100 Hondurans and Salvadorans had been sent to Guatemala.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says the deals, known as asylum cooperative agreements, "will allow migrants to seek protection within the region." The agreements are a key part of Trump's larger immigration crackdown, including programs forcing migrants to wait weeks or months to request asylum or to remain in Mexico to wait for immigration court dates. As a result, thousands of migrants are living in squalid tent cities just across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tens of thousands of people annually flee El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras -- collectively forming Central America's "Northern Triangle -- due to endemic violence, poverty, and political and religious persecution. Experts on the Northern Triangle say those countries can't be expected to take in asylum seekers when many of their own citizens are fleeing. The American Civil Liberties Union and other legal groups sued Wednesday to try to prevent the agreements from being enforced.
Lawyers for the mother and her two children have asked a federal judge in South Texas to order the government not to deport them.
Their lawsuit alleges that after the mother said she feared returning to Honduras -- where she says gangs demanded monthly payments or they would kill her and her children -- she "was instructed that she could either return to Honduras or be sent to Guatemala and had to decide immediately."
"She was not given an opportunity to explain why she feared being sent to Guatemala, where she has no family or contacts and would have difficulty providing for herself and her children," the lawsuit says.
In its response, the government said the infant would be monitored by the hospital for a few more days to ensure she can be deported. It also argued that the judge had no authority to prevent the family's deportation because higher courts have recognized that the Attorney General's office can decide on its own if and when to deport someone.
It was unclear when the judge would rule. U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.