Rosa Maria Hernandez was already frightened when she sat in an ambulance Tuesday night speeding toward a Texas hospital so that she could undergo emergency gall bladder surgery, according to her family's attorney.
The child was already scared before the ambulance stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint – before federal immigration officers detained her for living in the country illegally. She was brought over the Mexican border to Laredo, Texas, when she was 3 months old. Though Rosa Marie, who has cerebral palsy, is now 10 years old, her elementary school teachers and doctors say her mind is closer to that of a 4-or 5-year-old.
Federal agents let Rosa Maria proceed to Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, but followed her there, and then stood outside her room during the surgery. At first, the agents wouldn't allow the door of the hospital room to be closed, family members said. Anywhere Rosa Maria went, the agents followed.
When her doctors said she could go home, Rosa Maria took two steps out of her hospital room, and, upon seeing the unfamiliar faces – more Border Patrol agents and lawyers – she wanted to go back inside, said the family's attorney, Leticia Gonzalez.
It's unusual for federal agents to detain a child already living in the United States, especially one with a medical condition, experts say. Under Barack Obama, immigration agents were ordered to target high-priority immigrants such as violent criminals, and, for the most part, left everyone else alone. But President Donald Trump has ordered federal agents to move more aggressively to deport people living in the country illegally – including those without criminal records.
Immigration arrests rose 32.6 percent during the first weeks of the Trump administration, with federal agents intensifying their pursuit of not just undocumented immigrants with criminal records, but also the thousands of people living in the country illegally who have been otherwise law-abiding.
Immigration advocates fear Rosa Maria's case will further raise anxieties among immigrant communities, as those living in the country illegally may now have to choose between visiting the hospital and risking deportation. It's especially true for immigrants like Rosa Maria, who live south of Border Patrol checkpoints, in the Rio Grande Valley, and must cross the checkpoints to visit a hospital farther north. In all the time she'd lived in Laredo, Rosa Maria never had a reason to travel through the checkpoint, Gonzalez said.
"Instead of using resources to protect communities, [federal agents are] detaining a 10-year-old child who is medically ill," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who serves as first vice-chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
"This is just one story, but the administration's immigration polices are affecting families across Texas and across the nation," he said.
Rosa Maria was taken Wednesday to a children's shelter in San Antonio, which typically holds children who come across the border alone from Central America – not children who've been in the United States for several years. Immigrants detained by the federal government are usually adults, who await a trial for deportation, or families that have just arrived at the border.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson confirmed that Rosa Maria's ambulance was stopped upon approaching the primary inspection lane of the Freer Border Patrol Checkpoint on Highway 59, east of Laredo. An immigration inspection confirmed that Rosa Maria was living in the country illegally. Because of her medical condition, the agents escorted her and her cousin, who had accompanied her on the ambulance trip, to the Corpus Christi hospital.
"The Laredo Sector Border Patrol is committed to enforcing the immigration laws of this nation," the spokesperson said. "Per the immigration laws of the United States, once medically cleared [Rosa Maria] will be processed accordingly."
Gonzalez said Rosa Maria's cousin, Aurora Cantu, a U.S. citizen, was asked by the federal agents to sign for Rosa Maria's voluntary departure back to Mexico, where she could be transferred to a hospital. But the family chose not to. They had, after all, moved to the United States shortly after Rosa Maria was born so that she could have access to more affordable treatment for cerebral palsy, said the girl's mother, Felipa de la Cruz.
"It's difficult. When I think about her, I start to become sad," de la Cruz said, her voice cracking. "I become desperate."
In addition to Rosa Maria's detainment, another special-needs family is being targeted by federal agents this week. On Thursday, immigration advocates rallied in New York to stop the scheduled deportation of Noel Lopez-Reyes to Guatemala, which he had fled 25 years ago fearing for his safety. He has three U.S. citizen children, including one who suffers from a severe form of spina bifida, as well as scoliosis, deformities of limbs and brain and spine abnormalities, Make the Road New York officials said in a news release.
From January through mid-March, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 21,362 immigrants, mostly convicted criminals, compared with 16,104 during the same period last year, according to statistics requested by The Washington Post.
The number of immigrants without criminal records who were arrested more than doubled to 5,441.
The hospital's discharge orders indicated that Rosa Maria should be released to the custody of a family member familiar with her medical condition as her deportation proceedings continued. But attempts to have Rosa Maria released to her cousin or to her grandfather, a legal resident of 45 years, have failed. The family initially thought Rosa Maria could be released back to her mother, but federal agents barred it.
The family has received few details about the conditions of the shelter where Rosa Maria is being held. The shelter's staff had been expecting her when she arrived and promised a smooth transition but did not have copies of Rosa Maria's hospital discharge papers or access to her medical history, Gonzalez said.
Astrid Dominguez, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, said Rosa Maria should not spend "one more day" away from her mother.
"Border control escorted a 10-year-old girl and guarded her door like she posed some sort of threat," Dominguez said. Federal agents "should still have exercised discretion with basic humanity and allowed her to back to her parents."
All Rosa Maria wants is to be back with her mother, Gonzalez said. But it's unclear when, or if, Rosa Maria can see her before the deportation proceedings finish, a process that could take anywhere from two weeks to 90 days.