She sat inside a courtroom on a worn bench, like the ones in a church, solid but not comfortable. Touching shoulders with other women who tried their best to make their faded prison uniforms look crisp and their long black hair look kempt.

In the row behind them, men sat huddled close.

No person in this courtroom has a right to an attorney paid for by the U.S. government.

Maira Aracely Vail-Molina couldn’t afford a lawyer to help her understand the U.S. immigration system or why her son was taken from her.

Maira and her boy left Guatemala in April. They crossed the border illegally in May, traveling on foot with a gallon of water, guidance from a hotel owner in Sonoyta, Mexico, and a cellphone with directions set to Tucson. 

It has been about two and a half months since Border Patrol agents picked up Maira and her 16-year-old son in the desert near Lukeville, where southern Arizona gives way to towering cactuses shaped like warped candelabras, creosote bush and unmarked burial grounds for migrants who didn’t survive the trek.

RELATED: Reunited or deported? Mother in ICE detention faces the inevitable

After Maira spent two days in a holding center near the border, officers took her child. About nine days later, she was moved to one of the largest detention centers in the U.S. 

On July 12, Maira was in the Eloy Immigration Court, inside the detention center.

A sign on the door read: Judge Jennifer I. Gaz.

In immigration courts across the country, there were women like Maira, without their children and without a lawyer to plead their asylum or immigration case.


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Impact of legal representation

Data is spotty on migrants without attorneys. But a seminal 2015 study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, drawing on information from more than 1.2 million deportation cases decided between 2007 and 2012, found that 37 percent of all immigrants, and 14 percent of detained immigrants, secured representation.

Only 2 percent of immigrants secured pro-bono representation.

The study found that immigrants with attorneys fared better and had cases that were less of a burden on the court system.

“The odds were fifteen times greater that immigrants with representation, as compared to those without, sought relief, and five-and-a-half times greater that they obtained relief from removal,” the study said.

RELATED: Asylum 101: Here are the basics of what it is and who gets it

Additionally, cases of immigrants with counsel showed gains in court efficiency. They “brought fewer unmeritorious claims, were more likely to be released from custody, and, once released, were more likely to appear at their future deportation hearings.”

According to a 2008 Government Accountability Office report, migrants with legal representation generally doubled their likelihood of being granted asylum. 

The study said there could be various reasons for the higher success rate, including that attorneys “help applicants present their case more effectively because asylum law is complicated and applicants face cultural barriers; and attorneys can make better decisions about the viability of a case, so claims that are not likely to be granted won’t go forward.”


Arizona Republic reporters explain the difference between seeking asylum at the border and attempting to immigrate illegally.
Carly Henry, The Republic |

In the days, weeks and months after the U.S. immigration system fell into chaos amid unprecedented enforcement, hundreds of migrants experienced new tactics that allowed government agents to take their children.

Amid international backlash from national and world leaders, President Trump issued an executive order ending the action. But the order did not require that the more than 2,300 children already separated from their parents would be reunited with them. Civil-rights attorneys sued and in June a federal judge stopped the separations, calling for reunification within 30 days and halting further deportations of parents without their children unless the parent agreed to being deported.

As the Trump administration rushed to comply with the judge’s deadlines to reunite families separated under its zero-tolerance border policy, accounts of what happened to migrants lacking legal representation trickled out through lawyers, court records, human-rights groups and freed migrants.

Parents may have signed forms not knowing they were giving up their children, may have been pressured to agree to deportation with promises of being reunited with their sons or daughters, or may have encountered officials who never gave them a choice about leaving their children behind.

MORE: Is ICE pressuring parents to sign deportation documents to reunite with kids?

Or like Maira, they didn’t know how to make an asylum or immigration claim.

The Trump administration told a federal court on July 24 that more than 450 parents were deported without their children. The admission raised questions: How many parents understood their rights or that they would be sent to their home country without their children?

David Hausman, a legal scholar who contributed to the 2015 report, said migrants without legal representation face abysmal chances of staying in the U.S. — even if they have a legitimate case. That’s because people who don’t speak English and have no understanding of America’s laws enter a system where having a lawyer is a luxury.

“I think it’s indefensible that so many people are deported back to danger and possible death without even a basic chance to talk with someone, to talk with a lawyer who might be able to help them,” Hausman said.

In the detention-compound courtroom, Maira prayed silently, waiting for the judge to call her name.

When she closed her eyes, she thought of her son, Jefferson Fernando Roblero Vail, miles away in a Phoenix shelter for migrant children.


Lourdes Marianela De Leon is deported to Guatemala while her 6-year-old son, Leo, is held in New York after they illegally crossed into the U.S.
Nick Oza and David Wallace, Arizona Republic

It felt like death, migrant says

Only when Maira could walk outside, stare at blue sky and thirsty desert, did it hit her just how many mothers were without their children.

Hundreds waited here like her.

For nearly two months, since late May, Maira lived inside this sprawling immigration-detention center, one of the largest in America.

It felt like death, she said.

She knew to keep her eyes down, scurried when guards called. And she counted days spent caged alongside women and men with skin in shades of brown like hers.

The day before her July 12 court hearing, Maira sat in a visitation room, where she recounted leaving Guatemala in April.

MORE: ‘Worst thing that has ever happened to me’: Migrant details time as AZ detainee 

Maira told The Arizona Republic she raised her three children — 16-year-old Jefferson and a son and daughter now in their 20s — on her own when her husband abandoned them. She worked at restaurants to support her mother and her children.

Then the death threats came, she said.

“They said they would kill my children if I didn’t pay,” she said. The men wanted a ransom and told her she would die if she told anyone. Another call came. This time, her daughter answered.

“We have your mother and we’re going to kill her if you don’t pay,” they said. They were lying. Maira was at the market with her mother.

But that’s when Maira knew she couldn’t stay. Her older children moved out. Maira bought bus tickets to Mexico for herself and Jefferson.


Magali Nieto Romero, 33, of Guerrero, Mexico, has been waiting for an asylum interview with U.S. immigration officials for nine days.
Arizona Republic

At the U.S.-Mexico border, without money to pay a smuggler, she and Jefferson took a hotel owner’s guidance on how to cross the desert.

They walked from morning until it was dark. Then they saw lights — a Border Patrol agent.

“He was angry,” she said, “and kept saying, ‘Where are the others?’ ” He grabbed her and shook her, she said. Jefferson panicked, until another officer arrived and calmed the scene.

Maira said this was the first of many fearful days in U.S. custody.

A Border Patrol spokesman for the Tucson sector said he could not confirm the incident because he had not spoken with anyone involved.

At an immigration holding center near Tucson, Maira said agents put men, women and children in three separate rooms.

“You could hear the children crying,” Maira said.

The Border Patrol said that when sites reach capacity they may separate people for safety.

Maira said on the second day an officer called her name. She was taken to the lobby. Jefferson was standing there. She was told he was being moved to another facility. She hugged her son.

Maira told him not to forget the phone number of his aunt in Indiana.


Here is everything you need to know about the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy.
William Flannigan, azcentral

She said an immigration officer told her to sign some paperwork. She said she asked what the paperwork said, and was only told she must sign it.

Once she signed, she said, an officer told her she had given up custody of her child.

Lauren Mack, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, said the agency is “unable to provide information about her (Maira’s) case due to privacy restrictions.”

After nine days at the holding center, Maira said she was taken to the Eloy Detention Center.

The compound, with a capacity for about 1,500 people, is run by government contractor CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America. In 2015, after a string of suicides, the detention center became known as the deadliest in the nation.

RELATED: Eloy Detention Center: Why so many suicides?

In interviews with The Republic, attorneys as well as migrants held inside Eloy put the number of separated mothers at the compound during the past few months at about 300.

After a federal judge ordered the government to reunite all children with their parents by July 26, Maira said she saw a rush of mothers deported. ICE officers called her in five times, she said, reminding her she no longer had custody of her child, pushing her to sign deportation orders. She refused.

She said some mothers were told if they agreed to leave, the government would send them their children. Maira thought officers wanted to deport parents quickly to avoid meeting the judge’s demands to reunite families.

Finally, in early July, about one week before her July 12 hearing, Maira said she was taken to a large room. Mothers were told to fill out paperwork to reunite with their children.

She was asked what she wanted to happen to her son if she was deported. Weeping, Maira said her son would stay with her sister.

But she made a promise. If she had to leave her son, it wouldn’t be because of an ICE officer’s threats. 

She’d known death threats. She hadn’t given up then and she wouldn’t sign her own deportation order back to Guatemala now. A judge would have to order her to go.

A kindness amid isolation 

Maira said she prayed the judge would take sympathy on her wanting to earn a living to take care of her children. But those are not grounds for a valid asylum or immigration claim, and Maira hadn’t told anyone about the death threats.

“I’m scared,” she said in an interview with The Republic.

She didn’t comprehend the July 12 hearing, what would happen to her or why her son was still in a shelter and not with her sister. She held papers from an Indiana church where her sister lives that also has a missionary branch in her hometown in Guatemala.

Because it was in English, Maira couldn’t read the church’s letter. It attested to her character, noted the risks to her safety if she returned to Guatemala, and promised the church would help her.

RELATED: Trump administration issues new asylum rules

She never called an attorney whom a cellmate told her about because she didn’t have money. She had no way of knowing the lawyer was working with Immigrant Families Together, a grassroots group aiding parents whose children were taken.

One of her cellmates told her about Christian volunteers who visit people held in the detention center.

Maira scrawled her name on a piece of paper and gave it to her cellmate to give to the stranger.

Soon, Maira got her first visitor. Her name was Selena, a thin woman with long gray hair who hardly spoke Spanish.

“We prayed, read the Bible,” Maira said.

Maira said the only good days in detention were when she got to speak with her son by phone and when Selena visited.


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Alone in an immigration courtroom

On July 12, Maira sat in an immigration court at the Eloy Detention Center not knowing why she was there. A Republic reporter attended the hearing with ICE’s permission.

When Judge Gaz called Maira by her full name, she stood. Without an attorney to represent her, she walked alone to a desk, sat to the right of a Spanish-language translator and stared at the judge.

Gaz said Maira was there for a bond hearing. The judge held a blue folder and said there was little paperwork in it about Maira’s case.

Gaz told Maira she had no jurisdiction over her bond, meaning she couldn’t rule on it.

Maira had 30 days to appeal. Maira asked if she could speak.

“Yes,” Gaz said.

Maira said she didn’t understand why she was repeatedly being told to sign deportation orders. The judge said she didn’t have anything filed on Maira’s behalf.

A guard guided her out of the courtroom. Maira walked down a long hallway and disappeared through a doorway.


Two Guatemalan women make way back to their children after being released in Eloy, Arizona. Both had been detained longer than a month.
Patrick Breen/The Arizona Republic

‘People have been deported and killed’

Civil- and migrant-rights advocates say an immigration system with little transparency was an easy target for the Trump administration. They say the forced family separations were intended to deter migrants from seeking asylum or crossing the border illegally.

Immigration-enforcement hard-liners have argued severe policies are long overdue. And may finally achieve a Trump campaign promise — stem illegal immigration, at any cost. 

Hausman, the legal scholar, said Maira’s case is like that of many immigrants who have no right under U.S. law to an attorney paid for by the government and no money to pay for one.

“It is very, very difficult to succeed in immigration court without a lawyer,” he said.

The number of immigrants seeking asylum who are unable to secure legal representation has spiked in the past 10 years.

In fiscal year 2017, 20.6 percent of asylum seekers didn’t have representation, compared with 13.6 percent in 2007, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a data-research organization at Syracuse University. 

TRAC also found that while only one out of every 10 asylum seekers without representation wins their case, nearly half with representation are successful.

The U.S. immigration system is tough for even lawyers to navigate, Hausman said. Families seeking asylum who are from another country, who don’t speak English, are lost.

Hausman now works for the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil-rights group has sued the U.S., calling for the reunification of families who they say have been physically and psychologically abused.

“It’s very hard to put together an asylum application on your own without understanding what the legal requirements are in the United States,” Hausman said. “It’s very easy to be someone who could qualify for asylum but nonetheless not bring the right information to the attention of the judge.”

Hausman said lawyers are trying to force the government to provide more information on the families who were separated. People across the nation, he said, hope to raise enough money to pay for attorneys for migrants.

“The separation of families in this way is absolutely unprecedented,” Hausman said.   

But it remains to be seen how many mothers and fathers separated from their children and awaiting a hearing on their asylum or immigration-relief claims will be deported.

“Unfortunately, I think generally, it is very common for people who have a good asylum claim to be deported because they can’t support the claim without a lawyer,” Hausman said. “I know there have been many instances in which people have been deported and killed after deportation.”

What happened to Maira and her son?

By July 26, Maira had disappeared from the ICE “Online Detainee Locator System,” one of the few ways for the public to find information on ICE detainees. 

Entering her ID number and country of origin returned a message: “Zero matching records.” It offered no information on whether Maira had been deported, where she was or what happened to her son.

Selena, the Christian volunteer who had met periodically with Maira in Eloy, had a number for the Indiana pastor, whom Maira knew from Guatemala.

The phone rang. Bueno. It was the pastor saying hello in Spanish. The pastor told a Republic reporter what happened to Maira.

She had been released from the detention center.

“She’s here, with her son, eating dinner with us,” the pastor said. “I’ll get her.”

Maira spoke.

“I’m OK,” she said in Spanish. “God helped me.”

After her July 12 hearing, she was told she’d have another hearing in August. And like the first hearing, she still had no idea what it was for. She only knew the date.

“They (ICE officers) told me to sign the deportation papers again,” she said.

MORE: ‘I really missed my mama’: Migrant boy reunites with family in Guatemala

Again, Maira refused. A few days later, she said an officer told her she was being removed from the Eloy Detention Center and reunited with her son.

Maira said she was taken to an ICE facility in Phoenix. An officer arrived with Jefferson. They held onto each other and sobbed.

The next day, she said, an ICE officer told her before they could be released, they had to have a ticket to meet her sister in Indiana.

Maira’s sister bought her bus tickets. They were released to Lutheran Social Services, which aids immigrants and refugees. They fed her and her son.

“They were kind to us,” she said.


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Soon, Maira noticed her bus tickets were missing, perhaps stolen. She said the church bought her and Jefferson airline tickets.

They traveled on a plane for the first time. Sitting next to each other, they looked out the window and down at the clouds.

Maira and Jefferson are now staying with her sister. She said she was given a year to make her immigration case.

But without a lawyer, it’s unclear why Maira was released, how long she will get to stay or what will happen to her and her son.

Hausman, the ACLU legal scholar, said there’s no way of knowing if Maira was released in the Trump administration’s rush to meet the federal judge’s order to reunite families. 

What is certain, is that without an attorney, Maira will face the same challenges thousands of other migrants have faced in a U.S. immigration system that provides no right to legal counsel for those who are unable to afford one.

The pastor hopes to find a lawyer willing to help Maira for free. Maira believes God is bigger than the president, bigger than ICE, bigger than anything. But she won’t forget.

“They treated us like animals,” she said.

Divine intervention is the only thing the mother from Guatemala — who raised three children on her own, survived death threats, traveled by bus and foot to bring her son to safety in the U.S. — can fathom to explain why after being told she’d lost custody of her child and would be deported, she was suddenly released, reunited with Jefferson and allowed to stay with her sister, for now.

On the other end of a cellphone in Indiana, Maira sings Jefferson’s favorite Christian song. One she would sing inside Eloy Detention Center when her son was far away.

A tus pies, arde mi corazón  (At your feet, my heart burns)

A tus pies, entrego lo que soy  (At your feet, I give what I am)

Es el lugar de mi seguridad, donde nadie me puede señalar  (It’s the place of my safety where nobody can judge me)



Leo Jeancarlo DeLeon, 6, is escorted from a van to be reunited with his mother, Lourdes Marianela DeLeon, in Guatemala on Aug. 7, 2018.
Nick Oza, The Republic |

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