What happened to Emily Ruiz - a U.S. citizen - is a real shame. The 4-year-old girl was on a flight from Guatemala to New York, which due to inclement weather, was diverted to Washington, D.C. Upon landing, the grandfather was denied entry by customs agents because he had an immigration problem on his record. And the little girl was detained alone for hours. When the girl's father, who is undocumented, learned of Emily's whereabouts, he contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to find out how to get his daughter back. Mr. Leonel Ruiz claims that the agents told him that his only options were to have the child turned over to the custody of the state of Virginia or to be returned to Guatemala. According to Mr. Ruiz, the agents never told him he could go get the child himself. Fearful that Emily would be placed for adoption, he preferred to have the child returned to Guatemala with family.
This should never have happened. These agents violated the child's rights. First of all, Emily is a U.S. citizen and has the right to enter and remain in the country of her birth, regardless of the legal status of her parents. Moreover, she is a minor, so the authorities should have acted in the child's best interest. That is their responsibility - and they did not fulfill it.
To talk about it, I was invited to Telemundo channel in Los Angeles. Here is the interview.
Although the girl's father and mother are undocumented, this should not have prevented them from being reunited with their little girl. Of course, it was possible that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would detain the father when he went to pick up his daughter, but according to a memo written in early March by ICE Director John Morton, Mr. Ruiz's undocumented status, if he has not been in trouble with the law, is not one of the agency's priorities for deportation. Priority would have been given to the fact that he was the breadwinner of a U.S. citizen, and therefore, ICE agents would have had to use due discretion and consult with superiors to determine what to do with Emily's father.
The key and unfortunate part of this situation is that the grandfather had problems with his visa and still traveled out of the country. While the grandfather's problem was old - apparently an immigration violation from the 1990s - these are never expunged from the immigration record, so one should never leave the country without first consulting with an attorney. The result of not consulting with an attorney in this case: the grandfather cannot return to the U.S. and the child has likely experienced a traumatic situation.
Please, if you or a family member intends to travel out of the country and have ever had any run-ins with the law or immigration, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, consult with an attorney to ensure that you will have no problems returning to the United States.