Thousands of migrant children are held in detention each year, separated from their families. For some, their parents crossed illegally and got deported.
There's never any guarantee they’ll be reunited.
“There’s so many children that were separated, somewhere around May of last year. My husband and I talked about just us being in that position, if ever we had to escape violence or persecution and needed to take our kids and go somewhere for sanctuary or asylum,” Holly Sewell said.
Instead of giving money to an organization, Sewell wanted to do something bigger.
“What can we actually do to help the situation?…What we would want to have happen to our children?” Sewell asked. “We would want a safe family to take them in and treat them like one of their own.”
So, that's what she tried to do. After reaching out to several nonprofits, a friend connected her with attorney Ricardo de Anda.
Sewell said she could take in a child, but not a teenager since her children were five and eight years old.
“There was no mechanism in place at all for us to help in that way,” Sewell said.
De Anda told Sewell about Byron, a detained 8-year-old boy from Guatemala whose father was deported.
Before Sewell would agree to sponsor Byron, she wanted to speak with his family.
David Xol-Cholom, Byron’s father, fled Guatemala after gangs beat him for his evangelical Christian beliefs. They threatened Byron. So, Xol-Cholom crossed the U.S. border illegally and faced illegal entry charges in McAllen, Texas.
Before the judge, Xol-Cholom asked about his son.
“I wish for him to be returned to me,” Xol-Cholom said.
Byron wasn’t returned.
“It was the beginning of October when [ORR] denied us,” Sewell said.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement or ORR oversees separated children.
“The only thing they said was that we did not have a prior relationship with him before he migrated,” Sewell said.
Their policy shows a sponsor must be a relative or have a prior relationship with a separated child, neither of which fit the Sewell family.
Bryon could be placed in foster care, but the Sewell family isn't a licensed foster family.
“All we wanted was to be vetted,” Sewell said.
De Anda sued ORR, claiming the government agency violated prior court agreements and didn’t give Byron due process, among other violations.
“The interest at issue here is this child’s freedom,” De Anda said. “It is legal to ask for asylum. He is here legally.”
ORR supervisors said the policy is for child safety, to prevent abuse and human trafficking.
“Certainly, the right of the parents to choose what’s in his child’s best interest is a paramount right. That’s why we’re before this court – only because the parents chose Holly Sewell and her family,” De Anda said.
The court ordered ORR to consider the Sewell family. It took a little more than two weeks for the government agency to approve the sponsorship.
“Oh, my goodness! So excited,” said Sewell as she greeted Byron at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Byron spent 10 months in detention. His family said he had a birthday with no celebration.
Also, Byron’s leg was broken while playing soccer in detention. Nurses wrapped his ankle. Three days passed before a doctor realized Byron had broken his femur.
Within minutes after his arrival, De Anda connected Byron with his family in Guatemala.
When they arrived at the Sewell house, Bryon saw his own room. A giant sign reading “Bienvenidos Byron” was placed above the bed, welcoming him to the temporary home.
Photos from his family from a video call were taped to his closet door. Sewell’s children posted drawings representing love.
De Anda doesn’t get paid to represent Byron. He said he also has other clients in similar situations.
“I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” De Anda said. “Byron’s case is going to open the floodgates.”
Xol-Cholom, while in Guatemala, has a pending asylum case in the U.S.
“Now with Holly’s family, we’re sure he’s going to have good health and have those feelings of being a child like he used to," Xol-Cholom said. "We’re asking God to help us with Byron’s absence, for our health and all of that."
If Xol-Cholom’s asylum case is granted, he will be united with Byron.
If denied, Byron’s case will be reviewed separately.