UPDATE: After seven weeks of being separated from her family, Helen Nohemi has been reunited with her family, La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) reported.
What do mugshots look like today? Some of them look like the picture of Helen Nohemi, a 5-year-old Honduran girl who is now entering her second month of separation from her family. In her mugshot, she is seen dressed in a simple white T-Shirt. Her eyes stare straight into the camera, while her tiny hands lift a sheet of paper containing her name, identification number, and date of birth. Somewhere in the Office of Refugee Resettlement there lies a case file with this same picture on top of it. Meanwhile, in the Rio Grande Valley, her family desperately waits for her release.
Helen’s family arrived at the border mid-summer, according to John-Michael Torres, communications director at La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). She and her family left Honduras in response to threats local gangs had made against the family. They were detained near McAllen on July 13— about one month after President Trump announced an executive order allegedly ending the policy of family separations. For Helen, however, President Trump’s executive action made no difference.
Since Helen was not traveling with her biological mother, she was separated from the rest of her family unit and labeled an “unaccompanied minor.”
What happened to Helen and her family isn’t uncommon, Torres said. Border Patrol frequently separates children from their caretakers if the latter are not their biological parents.”
“It’s a policy which we’ve seen increase under the Trump administration, but it’s origins are not the Trump administration,” Torres said.
When the family was placed into deportation proceedings and released from the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) days later, Helen was not released with them. Torres says that came as a complete surprise to Helen’s grandmother, who had been told by agents that Helen would be released with the rest of the family unit. Instead, on July 17, Helen entered the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)— alone.
Distraught, the family turned to LUPE. They were fortunate to be able to be paired up with attorney Eugene Delgado.
“They were just in dismay, complete utter shock that the government could take away their child,” Delgado recalled. “They just couldn’t comprehend what was happening. In fact, the grandmother kept telling me, ‘Can I please get locked up with her? Like, find out a way to put me back in so that I can be back with her.”
Following dozens of calls and a process the attorney described as a “maze,” on Aug. 20 Delgado was finally able to obtain a copy of Helen’s case file and, later on, locate her.
Now, the family is doing everything it can to bring Helen home. A month ago, Helen’s mother and her grandmother underwent the ORR’s vetting process, volunteering fingerprints and providing interviews to the ORR. But in the meantime, both Helen and her family have suffered tremendously. Advocates say that Helen, who is now living in a foster home in San Antonio— 200 miles away from her family— has been bounced around several shelters.
According to Delgado, Helen is noticeably “depressed” and often “cries for her grandmother.” The last time that Delgado saw the child in immigration court, he says he had to explain to her that he could not take her home to her family just yet.
“I [had to explain] to her that we’re working on getting her out, to be patient. This is a five-year-old, you know? It’s extremely heartbreaking…She was in tears. You would think that a five-year-old like really wouldn’t understand what’s happening, but she knows…that she’s locked up in custody and that they won’t let her go to her grandmother and her mother.”
Helen’s family has also been deeply affected by the prolonged separation. The physical health of Helen’s grandmother has particularly suffered. According to Delgado, she has had to be hospitalized three times since her release from border patrol custody and is now on medication. On one occasion, Delgado said he had to call the ambulance to his office because the grandmother fainted in his office.
Last week, ORR finally cleared Helen’s mother and grandmother’s background checks, bringing Helen one step closer to being released to her family.
Delgado says he is optimistic that Helen may soon be released, perhaps as early as today. He attributes progress made to community pressure and demands.
“I suspect that we had a lot to do with this,” Delgado said. “Just basically the petition bombarding them, keeping the pressure on, etc. Why did it take this long? Nobody could give you a straight answer on that,” he told Neta.
For advocates like Torres, Helen’s case exemplifies that family separations and zero tolerance are far from over. Also far from over is community outrage and the commitment to fight for affected families.
“Even if the media is not paying attention to this anymore, even if it’s not trending on Twitter, people are fighting for these families,” Torres said. “We have a duty to fight.”