After more than five months apart from her parents and a torturous handful of weeks spent traveling back and forth from her homes in the U.S. and Guatemala, four-year-old Emily Ruiz is set to be reunited with her parents as early as next Wednesday after Customs and Border Patrol officials denied Ruiz access to her parents because they are undocumented.
"It's been a living nightmare, but we're happy because with God's help and thanks to all the unconditional support we've received, next week we'll be able to reunite with our daughter," said Emily's father Leonel Ruiz in a statement. "Emily will come back here to be home with us, and--this is the most important part--to be reunited with her family."
It's a reunion that can't come soon enough for the family that's been torn apart by what immigration advocates call an unlawful decision to deny the Ruizes their parental rights solely on the basis of their immigration status.
The Ruizes live in Long Island, where Emily's asthma was aggravated by the harsh winters. Her parents decided to send her to Guatemala so she could wait out the cold. But with spring around the corner and her asthma managed by medication, their family attorney said, Ruiz's parents were anxious to have her back in the U.S. Ruiz was set to arrive at JFK airport on March 11 with her grandfather, who had used an H-2B visa for the past five years to travel in and out of the country, the family's attorney David Sperling said. But when the plane arrived in Dulles, where it had been diverted because of weather, Ruiz's grandfather was denied entry into the country. At that point, according to Sperling, Border Patrol officers called Ruiz's father Leonel and said that he and his wife Brenda Dubon they could not allow Emily to come home.
"The agent said, 'I cannot send your daughter back because I am not allowed because you are illegal and your wife is too,'" Ruiz recalled, Sperling said. "And he told Mr. Ruiz, you have options. I can send your daughter to a child detention center in Virginia or send her back to Guatemala with her grandfather."
At that point, Sperling said, Emily's parents were frantic, and went to the local Spanish press in a desperate public appeal to get their daughter back to the country.
Customs and Border Patrol denies this story, and told the New York Times that they communicated to Emily's father that he could come to Dulles to pick her up, but that Emily's parents chose to have her go back to Guatemala with her grandfather.
Sperling disputes the Border Patrol's version of the story. "The CBP's official statement that Mr. Ruiz was given an option to reunite with Emily is categorically false," Sterling said, adding, "My client has steadily, emphatically maintained that he was never given the option to see his daughter."
"If you just look at the factual scenario, it doesn't make sense why he would go before the cameras and risk deportation in a plea to get his dadughter back if there was an opportunity for him to pick up his daughter. It's ludicrous. It doesn't make any sense."
New York Rep. Steve Israel has promised to demand an investigation into the incident, Sperling said. Immigration advocates are calling on the Customs and Border Patrol to discipline the officers who were involved.
Customs and Border Patrol did not respond to calls for comment.
Immigration advocates have called the case just the latest example of crackdowns on immigrants in the country, and another example of the damaging effect of a hysterial discourse around immigrants which has manifested itself in policies that are designed to curb the rights of immigrants and expand law enforcement powers to crack down on immigrants' ability to work, live and get an education in this country. This year state bills and congressional proposals have sought to deny children like Emily, babies born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrant parents, automatic citizenship which is protected by the 14th Amendment.
Emily's cause sparked outrage among the Latino and immigrant community, who demanded that the U.S. bring Emily back to the country.
There are more than five million children in the U.S. with at least one parent who is undocumented, according to Jeanne Butterfield, special counsel for the Raben Group and the former executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who added that three million of those kids are U.S. citizens.
"There is no basis in the law to deny custody to parents based solely on their immigration status," Butterfield said, adding that there were plenty of other options available to Border Patrol officials that would have allowed for the lawful reunion of Emily with her parents.
"This incident underscores the ugly, polarized debate and climate around immigration that exists right now, in which the undocumented, even parents, are seen as less than human," Butterfield said.
"That's not acceptable, and that's not reflective of American values and American democracy."