A 15-year-old girl who has lived in the U.S. with her family since she was an infant is now alone in government custody and facing deportation after she was arrested by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at a Texas hospital.
The teenager, who was born in Mexico and does not have legal status, went to a hospital in Edinburg, Texas, with her aunt last week after experiencing gallbladder-related pain, her attorney, Sarah Valdes, told CBS News. She was then referred to undergo surgery in another hospital in San Antonio.
But the girl and her aunt, who is also undocumented, did not have proper documents to travel through a CBP checkpoint on the way to San Antonio. CBP operates dozens of highway checkpoints in the interior of the country near the borders with Mexico and Canada. At these checkpoints, designed to curtail human and drug smuggling, agents can ask travelers for their immigration status.
CBP told CBS News that it learned of the family's status and sent Border Patrol agents to the Edinburg hospital to provide documents the child could use to travel through the checkpoint and to "process her and her aunt consistent with their immigration status."
"There are protocols in place with area medical facilities to prevent delays or the detention of individuals traveling through the checkpoints to seek emergency medical care," CBP said in a statement.
Valdes said CBP arrested the girl's aunt at the Edinburg hospital. The 15-year-old was taken to San Antonio and underwent the prescribed surgery, but CBP officials went to the second hospital and guarded the girl's room, according to Valdes.
After the surgery, the 15-year-old girl, who found herself in a hospital without an accompanying adult family member, was taken into CBP custody and designated an unaccompanied migrant child. U.S. anti-trafficking law requires all government agencies, including CBP, to transfer undocumented minors classified as unaccompanied to the U.S. refugee agency, which holds children in shelters and other housing facilities.
CBP officials confirmed the agency apprehended and processed the girl before transferring her to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Her aunt, meanwhile, was "processed in accordance with CBP policy in relation to her immigration status" and sent to an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center for adults, the officials added.
Despite living in the U.S. for the vast majority of her life, the 15-year-old undocumented girl has now been placed in a U.S. government shelter while ICE seeks to deport her to Mexico. Her current predicament stems from her classification as an unaccompanied migrant child under a law that was enacted to protect recent border-crossing minors from exploitation.
"It's a reiteration of family separation," Valdes, a lawyer for the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), told CBS News. "She's only unaccompanied because they showed up at the hospital and they arrested her adult family member."
Valdes said her client also tested positive for coronavirus while hospitalized.
The Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the Office for Refugee Resettlement, declined to comment on this story. CBS News is not disclosing the girl's name because she is a minor. Fearing reprisals, the teenager's parents, who live in the U.S., declined to be interviewed through Valdes.
Asked about the reported immigration arrests at its Edinburg location, the South Texas Health System said it "is committed to delivering high-quality care to all patients."
"While we appreciate the interest and worthiness of this news story, national patient privacy laws prohibit us from making any further comment at this time," the company said in a statement to CBS News.