After a harrowing weekslong battle with immigration officials, Emily Ruiz, a four-year-old U.S. citizen who was wrongfully deported by Customs and Border Patrol agents, was reunited on Tuesday with her parents in New York.
Emily's parents greeted their daughter as she walked from a hallway into a crowded room full of supporters. Her father Leonel Ruiz scooped her up first, Emily wrapped her arms around his neck, and the little girl's mother joined them for tearful hugs. The weeks leading up to today's reunion have been much more painful for the family.
Ruiz, who suffers from chronic asthma, was sent to Guatemala five months ago to wait out the New York winter and set to come home earlier this month together with her grandfather. After landing in Washington, D.C.'s Dulles airport on March 11, Ruiz's grandfather, who had traveled in and out of the country for years on a work visa, was detained. According to Emily's parents, Customs and Border Patrol agents who subsequently contacted Leonel Ruiz asked him about his and his wife's immigration status. After determining that the Ruizes were undocumented, immigration officials then told Ruiz's parents that they only had two options: allow immigration officials to send the little girl to a holding facility in Virginia or give the okay for her deportation to Guatemala. Ruiz's father maintains that he was only given these two options.
According to the family's attorney David Sperling, immigration officials denied the Ruizes access to their daughter solely on the basis of their immigration status. "[Leonel] was explicitly told that he was not allowed to come get his own daughter 'because he was illegal,'" Sperling said.
And so Ruiz's father, fearing that Emily would be put up for adoption if his daughter were taken to a detention facility, agreed to send Emily with her grandfather back to Guatemala. Ruiz's father said he was never given the opportunity to come pick up his daughter after Customs and Border Patrol officials determined that he and his wife were undocumented.
In the following days, Ruiz's frantic parents went public with their story, risking their own deportation by going on Spanish-language media to plead for answers, and most of all to beg for their daughter's return to the country. After several days of public outcry and behind-the-scenes negotiations, U.S. officials agreed to return Emily to her parents.
"Emily, just four years old and a U.S. citizen, should never have faced this confusing and frightening situation," said New York Rep. Steve Israel. Israel's staff helped coordinate Ruiz's release, and has called on the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the incident.
"No matter what side of the immigration debate you are on, it is clear that the system didn't work for Emily," Israel said.
"Why did U.S. government officials decide to put the immigration status of the parents above the rights of the parents?" asked the family's attorney David Sperling.
At this point the political questions are just as big as the procedural. Immigration advocates have demanded an investigation into the matter and sanctions for the officers involved as the Ruiz's advocates try to piece together an understanding of how two parents were denied access to their daughter.
"What is the policy of the U.S. government in these situations, and when are we going to get a CBP or a DHS statement that clarifies it?" Sperling questioned. "What kind of mindset prevails at CBP that its officials could decide that sending a 4 year old back thousands of miles away from her nearby parents made sense?"
Immigration advocates say that this incident speaks to the broader political climate that's led to the dehumanization of immigrant communities.
"The fact that this incident happened at all seems to be the result of the currently polarized and ugly political climate in which undocumented persons are seen as somehow less than human, and in which U.S. citizen children are alleged to have fewer rights as the result of their parents' immigration status," said Jeanne Butterfield, special counsel for the Raben Group and the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
While hundreds of thousands of families are being torn apart every year by this country's deportation obsession, parents are also being torn away from their U.S. citizen children in the process. The country that purports to care so much about family values actually cares very little for families if the people involved don't have the correct immigration status.
But today, one immigrant family is getting another day together.
"Emily is back with us now," Leonel Ruiz said. "We have no words to express the joy it brings us to see, hold and kiss our daughter again."
"Our family is once again complete and united, and that's what is most important.
All photos by Clark Jones. Video by Anna Mumfo