A 12-year-old fled the Bahamas with her godmother. They made it to Florida. Then US immigration authorities separated them

The mother of a 12-year-old from the Bahamas is trying to reunite with her daughter after US immigration authorities sent the girl to a shelter for unaccompanied minors, according to the Miami Herald.

Katty Paul told the Herald her daughter flew to West Palm Beach with her godmother Sunday after their family was rescued in the Bahamas. Immigration authorities, Paul said, separated the girl from the godmother after they arrived in Florida.

The mother, who CNN has been unable to reach for comment, told the Herald her daughter is now in the custody of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

“I thought losing my house was devastating. Or having to relocate to a different island or country was devastating,” Paul told the Herald. “But when I found out that they got her, my baby, I mean, there are no words. It was at that moment that I really lost everything.”

A CBP spokesperson said in a statement that officials are working to reunite the girl with her family, adding that the agency had followed an important protocol meant to protect children from exploitation.

“CBP has been in contact with the child’s mother and is working through HHS to verify legitimate caretakers and reunite them,” the statement said.

It can take weeks for children to be placed with sponsors once they’re in HHS custody, according to government statistics.

The girl arrived in West Palm Beach Monday “with an adult that had no identifiable familial relationship,” CBP said.

“CBP made multiple attempts to contact family members, however was unsuccessful, resulting in the need to transfer the child to (HHS) custody,” the statement said. “This established CBP protocol is meant to protect vulnerable children from exploitation and human smuggling and is especially important during uncertainties created by natural disasters and emergencies.”

HHS told CNN in a statement that the agency does not comment on specific cases but that, by law, HHS is required to provide care for unaccompanied children.

“Once in our care we work to put them in immediate contact with parents or family members so they may be united with a suitable sponsor as soon as possible,” the statement said.

In the past, US immigration authorities have said they will separate children from adults at US ports of entry when there are questions of parentage or the adults are not legal guardians of the children. In recent days, officials have also said there’s been confusion as authorities scramble to respond to the unfolding disaster in the Bahamas.

Immigrant rights advocates slammed the US government’s handling of the Bahamian girl’s case and called for her release from custody.

“This little girl came to the US fleeing Hurricane Dorian with her godmother at her parents’ direction only to be classified as an ‘unaccompanied minor’ and ripped away from her loved ones,” Families Belong Together Chair Jess Morales Rocketto said in a statement Wednesday. “Now, her family has to start the long process of becoming the child’s sponsor while they face deportation at the end of the month. We demand her immediate release.”

Paul arrived in Miami on Tuesday and is trying to reunite with her daughter, according to the Herald. She told the newspaper her family of six were inside their house when the roof collapsed and that they barely survived the storm. They spent six days sleeping in their Dodge before rescuers got to them, the mother told the Herald. She said she sent her daughter with her godmother because there wasn’t room for the whole family to evacuate together, according to the newspaper.

“There wasn’t enough space. At that point you have to make a decision,” Paul said, according to the Herald. “I sent my 12-year-old with her godmother, while I stayed with our two youngest and my husband stayed with our adult son.”

Now, Paul said she’s terrified she won’t be able to reunite before September 26, the day US authorities have told her she’ll have to leave the country.

“I don’t even want to think about what that will look like — if I have to leave here before being able to claim my own daughter,” Paul told the Herald.

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