‘He seemed so small.’ AP reporter recounts 1-year-old before immigration judge

Did the toddler understand immigration law? "The child didn't even really speak, other than to say the word agua."

When Astrid Galván entered the Phoenix courtroom at 8:15 a.m. Friday, the AP reporter didn't know what to expect. She had no clue or expectation that she’d soon encounter a story that would turn out to be the biggest of her career.

Fifteen minutes later, a toddler was brought in.

“He was sitting really close to me. It’s hard not to look at a really cute baby,” Galván said on Monday. “He looked to be in good shape. He looked clean. His hair was combed. He was in dress clothes.”

One thing struck her, though. Officials said the boy, whose first name was Johan, was 1 year old, but Johan didn’t look much bigger than Galván’s own 8-month-old daughter.

“He seemed so small,” Galván said. “You definitely have perspective if you’re a mother.”

After nearly 90 minutes near the back of the court, the little boy had kicked off his shoes, played with a ball, asked for “agua.” Then it was his turn before an immigration judge, who began asking the “defendant” if he understood the proceedings.

AP reporter Astrid Galvan
The AP's Astrid Galván. Used by permission. 

“I’m embarrassed to ask it, because I don’t know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a 1-year-old could learn immigration law,” Galván quoted Judge John W. Richardson as telling the lawyer representing Johan. Galván was the only reporter in the room.

“That child didn’t even really speak,” Galván told me, “other than say the word, ‘agua.’”

Her story of the shoeless boy before the judge symbolized the oddness of President Trump’s family-separation order. The boy’s screams when he was placed in the hands of unfamiliar adults exemplified the pain of being apart from a parent.

The immigrant-rights lawyer with the Honduran boy told the judge that his father had agreed to be flown back to Honduras under false pretenses, with the condition he would be reunited with his son. It was unclear how long the boy and his dad had been separated.

The judge repeatedly asked the ICE prosecutor to ensure the boy was reunited with his family before Tuesday, then the deadline to bring back together separated kids and parents. The prosecutor said he was unfamiliar with that deadline — and that a different part of ICE handled such things.

Galván began writing the first paragraphs of her story when she got back to the office, waiting on questions, but editor Josh Hoffner encouraged her to keep writing. The story took off on social media after it hit the AP wire early Saturday — and was still being shared profusely Monday night. Galván, who has covered high-profile immigration stories in Phoenix, Tucson and El Paso, said nothing has rivaled the reaction from this story.

On Monday, she was pressing for answers to basic questions: Have relatives been notified of Johan’s whereabouts? How long was he separated? What were the circumstances of the family’s flight northward? How do strangers take care of a lonely 1-year-old? Did the judge ever get cooperation from ICE to move up the reunification of Johan?

Johan was not the only kid who went before that judge on Friday. Galván said he was the youngest, but he was only one of 20 kids at that hearing.

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