Photo: LUPE

Today, the New Yorker published an absolute gut-punch of a story describing how Helen, a 5-year-old child from Honduras, was taken from her family and convinced to sign away her rights to an important judicial hearing, then swept into a complicated bureaucratic system that nearly lost her entirely.

The story explains that Helen, her grandmother Noehmi, and several other relatives fled gang threats in Honduras in July and ended up in a DHS processing facility in Texas, where Helen was separated from the rest of the family. The adult family members were eventually released, and went to meet Helen’s mother, who was already living in the U.S. But Helen stayed. She was eventually shuffled to several shelters and foster care centers by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, but the family was ill-informed as to her whereabouts. Then, at one shelter, a government official gave Helen, a five-year-old child, a document to sign, which waived her right to a Flores hearing, a crucial judicial process that could get her released earlier.

Per the New Yorker, emphasis mine:

According to a long-standing legal precedent known as the Flores settlement, which established guidelines for keeping children in immigration detention, Helen had a right to a bond hearing before a judge; that hearing would have likely hastened her release from government custody and her return to her family. At the time of her apprehension, in fact, Helen checked a box on a line that read, “I do request an immigration judge,” asserting her legal right to have her custody reviewed. But, in early August, an unknown official handed Helen a legal document, a “Request for a Flores Bond Hearing,” which described a set of legal proceedings and rights that would have been difficult for Helen to comprehend. (“In a Flores bond hearing, an immigration judge reviews your case to determine whether you pose a danger to the community,” the document began.) On Helen’s form, which was filled out with assistance from officials, there is a checked box next to a line that says, “I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing.” Beneath that line, the five-year-old signed her name in wobbly letters.

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Here’s a screenshot of the legal form that the government handed a five-year-old child, then “helped” her fill out. The full document was published by the New Yorker.

Does that make any sense to you? I had to read it several times, and I am 28 years old and a native English speaker. Helen is a five-year-old child from Honduras.

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Screenshot: LUPE/ New Yorker

There is good news: Helen is home now. She is free. But the story also includes the terrifying information that she very nearly disappeared into the system. Helen’s family eventually got connected with an immigrant rights group called LUPE, who provided them with a lawyer, Eugene Delgado, who helped them with their petitions for asylum.

Per the New Yorker:

There, a judge granted Noehmi and her relatives more time to apply for asylum. Toward the end of the hearing, Delgado brought up Helen.

“Judge, this case doesn’t stop here,” Delgado said. “What about the little child lost in the system?”

The judge looked confused. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, where is Helen, the five-year-old?”

The judge, Delgado recalled, seemed startled. Both he and the government prosecutor had no idea that Helen existed, let alone where she was being held. “I could give you a couple of phone numbers to call?” the prosecutor offered.

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This is how children disappear. There are literally thousands of children in the system right now whose parents may not have been as fortunate as Helen’s family was. Her release was secured in no small part due to a viral petition campaign, which pressured authorities enough to somewhat expedite the process, which was held up for weeks due to bureaucratic roadblocks like mandatory fingerprinting. Right now, the government has lost track of thousands of children, either placed with sponsors or foster homes. Helen is surely back with a loving family, but many others are still ghosts in the system, processed at the border and then released, somewhere, to someone — authorities note that unaccompanied, unaccounted-for children are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. The government doesn’t know. We don’t know. We have no idea how many more Helens are out there, still waiting to go home.