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Maria De Bastos, a 55-year-old Brazilian national, was detained in El Paso for 11 months before being released on July 12. Her grandson, Matheus, was brought to Connecticut last September and has been living in a state-run group home. (Matt Ormseth/Hartford Courant/TNS)

The first shock came when immigration agents separated Maria De Bastos from her epileptic and severely autistic grandson and flew him a thousand miles away. The second unfolded more slowly, in a Texas detention center where De Bastos was incarcerated after seeking asylum for herself and her grandson, as the days bled into weeks, then months.

De Bastos, a 55-year-old Brazilian national, was detained in El Paso for 11 months before being released on July 12. Her grandson, Matheus, was brought to Connecticut in September and has been living in a state-run group home.

Their case is unusual for two reasons. Although De Bastos is Matheus’ legal guardian in Brazil, she was separated from the boy after requesting asylum at the southern border. Also unusual, De Bastos was detained for nearly a year, despite applying for entry legally and never being charged with a crime. Unlike the people detained under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, De Bastos did not try to cross the border illegally.

Now, after nearly a year apart, De Bastos has come to Connecticut to find her grandson.

Last August, De Bastos and Matheus requested asylum at a port of entry in Santa Teresa, N.M. Her claim: Matheus, 17, who is virtually non-verbal and needs help eating and bathing, was being abused in a school for children with special needs in Brazil, she said. When he came home with welts on his arms, she went to the police — who allegedly did nothing.

De Bastos said after she went public with the allegations on a local radio station, eight mothers came forward and said their children had also been beaten at the school. The principal was dismissed, and it was then, she said, that a policeman — the principal’s brother — threatened her life.

At the New Mexico station, Border Patrol agents found De Bastos had been issued a removal order in 2007, making her eligible to be deported from the U.S. immediately. De Bastos attributed the order to an overstayed visa.

De Bastos was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, for what is known as a “credible fear” interview. But first they separated her from Matheus, then 16, because she could not prove she was the boy’s legal guardian, according to a spokesman for the Border Patrol.

Family separations at the country’s southern border erupted into a political firestorm last month, with the backlash from images of children being held in cages prompting Trump to backpedal on the policy.

But De Bastos and Matheus were separated months before the zero tolerance policy took effect; more unusually, De Bastos had not crossed the border illegally, as those separated from their children under the zero-tolerance policy tried to do.

“I didn’t want to sneak in,” she said in Portuguese, through a translator. “I knocked on the door and said, ‘I need help.’ ”

It is also unclear why Border Patrol did not consider her Matheus’s legal guardian. Roger Maier, the Border Patrol spokesman, said the agency “could not consider her the legal guardian.”

But De Bastos was carrying a court order from their home state of Goiás granting her “guardianship, for perpetual time,” of Matheus. In the order, which The Courant reviewed, a judge wrote that De Bastos should be the boy’s guardian because his parents “do not contribute for the child’s support … and in the last six months they have not even telephoned to hear about their child.”

The papers, which were translated into English by a court interpreter, bear a judicial seal and have a watermark that reads, “Sworn Translation.”

Border Patrol nevertheless listed Matheus as an unaccompanied minor in a paperwork provided by De Bastos’ attorney. He was separated from his grandmother two days later.

“He wasn’t an unaccompanied minor,” the attorney, Eduardo Beckett, said. “The government made him an unaccompanied minor.”

SEPARATED AFTER 13 YEARS

De Bastos has cared for the boy since he was 4, when his mother abandoned him once it became clear he had severe needs. Both parents live in Connecticut and have green cards, though they are estranged, De Bastos said. His father — De Bastos’ son — works and is unable to care for him full time. His mother has remarried and has children from the new marriage.

And so for the last 13 years, caring for Matheus was his grandmother’s life — until they were separated.

Matheus did not understand what was happening, De Bastos said, and as a social worker led him away, onto a plane bound for what she would later learn was Illinois, “he was calling to me, ‘Come with me.’ ”

After being separated from Matheus, De Bastos was driven to a detention center in El Paso. As the car slipped through four rings of barbed wire-topped walls, De Bastos began to worry. “I asked, ‘Am I being arrested?’ ” she recalled. “They said yes.”

Prior to 2017, many people who sought asylum were allowed to enter the country on parole while their claims were pending. ICE has a policy dating to 2009 of reviewing asylum cases individually and paroling people unlikely to skip court or threaten public safety.

But beginning in 2017, some ICE facilities — including the one where De Bastos was held — began denying parole indiscriminately. At the El Paso center, ICE paroled none of the 349 people who requested asylum in the first nine months of 2017, according to agency records cited in a federal lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled earlier this month for the civil rights group, ordering ICE to return to its policy of weighing parole on a case-by-case basis.

In El Paso, De Bastos said she was held in a large hall with 45 women from across the world, mothers, grandmothers and single women from Central and South America, Africa, Asia. They gathered twice a day to pray for their release.

De Bastos spoke with Matheus by phone once a week. Though Matheus has difficulty speaking, De Bastos says she understands his idiom of gestures, pet names and facial expressions.

“He talks in his own way. He says very few things you can understand, but I know him,” she said. “I know every movement, every word he says.”

The boy was first brought to an Illinois refugee agency before being sent to Connecticut a month later to live with his parents. But they were “unable to provide Matheus with the 24/7 care he has become accustomed to,” a social worker with Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families wrote to ICE, and Matheus was placed in a group home for children with special needs.

DCF asked that De Bastos be released and allowed to join her grandson in Connecticut. Matheus “is having a lot of difficulties in his new environment,” the social worker wrote, and while “the Department is trying to help stabilize the environment for Matheus … having his grandmother present with him would be beneficial.”

In early July, nearly 11 months after De Bastos requested asylum, an immigration judge denied her claim. The judge decided that the Brazilian policeman who allegedly threatened her was a “rogue police officer with a personal vendetta,” said Beckett, De Bastos’ attorney, characterizing the ruling. “The judge said, ‘It’s personal and has nothing to do with the government, so it’s not asylum.’”

Beckett is appealing the decision. He argues that De Bastos’ uncovering of her grandson’s alleged abuse was political expression, and that the school that failed Matheus and the policeman who threatened her are government representatives.

“She was a whistleblower, and for them to say it has nothing to do with the government is ridiculous,” Beckett said.

‘WE’RE LETTING YOU GO’

Days after her claim was struck down, a despondent De Bastos was summoned to an office in the detention center. A marshal handed her a stack of paperwork; thinking it was her deportation order, she refused to sign.

No, she remembered him saying, “We’re letting you go so you can take care of your grandson.”

De Bastos was paroled just days after Boasberg, the federal judge, ordered ICE to return to reviewing asylum seekers for parole on a case-by-case basis.

Word had spread she would soon be reunited with her grandson, and as the marshal led De Bastos through a series of locked doors to the hall that for nearly a year had contained her life, the guards at each of the doors were crying, she said. When she reached the hall, her co-detainees lifted her up and carried her “like a World Cup soccer player.”

De Bastos left the following day for Connecticut. She has yet to see Matheus, who is still in a group home. She believes he is being treated well, but has grown frustrated at the Connecticut DCF’s reluctance to reunify the two right away.

DCF told her the earliest she can see him is Aug. 9, she said. “It makes no sense.”

Joette Katz, the DCF commissioner, declined to be interviewed. A spokesman said the department is “committed to doing everything we can to arrange for needed services,” calling Matheus’ condition “extremely complex.”

“The story of what happened to the boy in his home country is very troubling,” said Gary Kleeblatt, the DCF spokesman.

De Bastos’ own future in the U.S. is uncertain. She has been paroled while her attorney appeals the judge’s dismissal of her asylum claim. The decision is unlikely to be overturned. But she knows Matheus is safe in Connecticut, and the knowledge she is close to him, wherever he is, offers some comfort.

And one day — soon, she hopes — she will get a call, and she will go to her grandson and “ask him to forgive me,” she said, “because I know he has suffered.”

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