A federal judge ordered the U.S. government Wednesday to allow the return of 11 parents who were deported without their children during the Trump administration's wide-scale separation of immigrant families.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ruled that government agents unlawfully prevented those parents from pursuing asylum cases. In some cases, Sabraw found, agents coerced parents to drop their claims and accept deportation by having them sign documents they didn't understand or telling them that asylum laws had changed.
The parents who will be allowed back include David Xol, the Guatemalan father of 9-year-old Byron , who has lived for several months with a family in Texas after spending nearly a year in government custody. It wasn't immediately clear when David Xol and other parents would come back.
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"We're still waiting for the dust to settle," said Ricardo de Anda, the Xol family's attorney. De Anda added that he was "relieved" by the ruling, but wasn't sure whether the government would appeal Sabraw's order.
Sabraw declined to allow seven other parents in the original request to return.
More than 400 parents were deported without their children when President Donald Trump's administration was implementing a zero-tolerance policy last year on border crossings. The policy was rescinded in June 2018 amid worldwide condemnation of the family separation practice. Days later, Sabraw ordered the re-unification of separated families.
Some parents elected to have their children returned to their countries of origin. But at his attorney's urging, David Xol decided to ask to come back to the U.S. and seek asylum again.
Immigration advocates say many more parents might have been separated before the zero-tolerance policy went into effect last spring. The American Civil Liberties Union also said more than 900 children have been separated from their parents since Sabraw's initial order .
"We are thrilled that the court squarely rejected the government's position that he lacked authority to bring back parents," said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney. "We will do everything we can to continue to look for ways to bring back the parents who he did not order be returned."
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
Byron and David Xol have been apart for 16 months. The two left their village in Guatemala in May 2018 after gangs threatened David's life due to his evangelical preaching. They crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization and were taken into Border Patrol custody.
David Xol has alleged that agents took him into a room and presented him with a document he couldn't read. He said he was told if he didn't sign it, he would be detained for at least two years and Byron would be given up for adoption; if he did sign it, the two would be deported together.
He agreed to sign it, only to have Byron taken away from him anyway.
Xol was deported to Guatemala and Byron taken to a series of facilities for unaccompanied migrant children run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency's inspector general on Wednesday released a report that found children separated from their parents had showed more fear, feelings of abandonment and signs of post-traumatic stress than children who were not separated.
Byron showed some of those symptoms. At times during his calls home, he would refuse to speak to his father out of anger.
The boy also broke his leg playing soccer. Medical records show his thigh fracture was misdiagnosed at one point as a broken ankle. Several days passed before Byron placed in a full cast.
Byron has lived since April with Matthew and Holly Sewell, who took Byron into their home in Buda, Texas, outside of Austin. Holly Sewell said Wednesday that David Xol's potential return was "wonderful news."
De Anda said he has arranged for David and Byron to live together in the area so that Byron can stay in the same school.