LOS FRESNOS, Texas — Gabriel Canas, a bus driver from El Salvador who fled his homeland after members of MS-13 stormed his bus, did an initial screening interview for asylum under the worst circumstances.
He hadn’t spoken to his 9-year-old daughter since the Border Patrol separated them two weeks earlier. And in that time, he had been moved repeatedly from one detention facility to another.
“The day I had my interview, I wasn’t well because they’d taken my daughter away. I was worried sick. I didn’t know where she was. I hadn’t spoken to her,” Canas told a judge at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas, where parents of many of the more than 2,000 children who were separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy await their fate.
His case illustrates an overlooked effect of the separations: Some immigrants complain that they stumbled through their first asylum interviews when they were deeply distraught over losing their children. The interviews can have life-changing consequences because they are critical to establishing why families cannot return home safely.
Not until a day after the interview did Canas learn through a lawyer what happened to his child. The asylum officer who conducted the interview issued a deportation order. On Monday, an immigration judge upheld it.
The judge cited new Justice Department guidelines that gang violence is not sufficient grounds for asylum. But Canas blames his poor interview and plans to seek another one.
Volunteer lawyers say parents are distressed about losing their children and having no firm date for when they will reunite, putting them at a big disadvantage when they meet with asylum officers from the Citizenship and Immigration Service.
The so-called credible-fear interviews at Port Isabel take place by phone within two to four weeks of a parent’s arrest and last 45 to 90 minutes each, according to immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin. Getting an answer can take a week.
To clear the initial hurdle, asylum seekers must demonstrate a “significant possibility” that they can prove that they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion if they are returned home.
They are judged partially on the consistency of their statements to border inspectors at the time of arrest. Attorneys say many asylum seekers, usually speaking through translators, fumble their interviews by holding back on details that may help their cases.