Christian Laporte, 19, plays with his brother Vladimir Fardin, 9. The brothers, who were traveling with U.S.-issued visas, were denied entry to the U.S. and separated by immigration officials at SFO after arriving on a flight from Mexico on Sunday. (Courtesy of the Family)
Immigration authorities at San Francisco International Airport have taken a 9-year-old Haitian boy away from his brother, an East Bay college student, and sent him to a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Southern California.
Both brothers were traveling with U.S.-issued visas. Christian Laporte, 19, was returning to attend classes at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, after spending the Christmas holidays in Haiti with his family, according to attorney Milli Atkinson, who is representing the brothers. She said Laporte’s younger half-brother, Vladimir Fardin, was accompanying him for a visit and had a tourist visa.
When they arrived at SFO Sunday afternoon from Haiti via a flight from Mexico, immigration officials refused to let the brothers enter the U.S. due to visa problems, according to a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Atkinson said the pair was held at the airport for more than 24 hours, their visas were taken away and they were not permitted to speak to her or to family members.
Atkinson, who is legal director for the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative, called the lack of communication, especially with a child, “a frightening aspect of our immigration system.”
On Monday night, authorities took Fardin to a shelter, Atkinson said, but they would not tell her where he was going. He was eventually able to speak to his mother, after arriving at a facility in San Diego run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, she said.
Designating Fardin an unaccompanied minor was unnecessary and could lead to a long and damaging separation, said Atkinson.
“This system is designed to protect children from trafficking. But it was clear from the moment he entered that this was not a trafficking situation,” she said. “It’s a long bureaucratic process and it could possibly be months before he can see his family again.”
Tuesday morning, Laporte was put on a flight to the Dominican Republic via Mexico, although he is not Dominican, said Atkinson. She added that officials would not give her the flight number, but said his mother was able to travel from Haiti to the Dominican airport to find him.
“Their mother is devastated,” Atkinson said. “She is heartbroken for Christian ... and she is justifiably worried about Vladimir’s safety and well-being.”
Fear for a Child in Detention
Linsay Etienne, a family friend in Oakley, said Laporte had spent the fall semester attending school and living with her, and she was preparing to host Fardin as well. She said the boys have a deep bond and the forcible separation could be crushing.
“We know the conditions for children in detention are not the best, they are not good,” said Etienne. “Children have died. They are left scarred. They are traumatized. A lot of things are happening that are horrible with children in detention. ... And we don't see that being any different for Vladimir.”
Etienne said the brothers have traveled between Haiti and the U.S. repeatedly over the years, always legally. Laporte had spent his last two years of high school at a boarding school in New England on a student visa, then decided on California for college.
“He's interested in doing something in the sciences ... and we're always saying that California has some of the best science programs,” she said. “So he came here for school.”
Diablo Valley College confirmed that Laporte was a student last fall and is enrolled for this spring semester, but said he had applied as a domestic student.
CBP officials say Laporte presented an F-1 student visa at SFO, but said he was missing “other required admissibility documentation” and agreed to withdraw his application to enter the country.
Etienne and Atkinson say they tried frantically to contact the college to straighten out the paperwork but did not succeed, due to the long holiday weekend.
CBP officials said they found Fardin was found “inadmissible” during an interview at the airport.
“It was determined the minor had previously been attending elementary school in California on a B-1 tourist visa, violating the terms of that visa, and was intending to resume his schooling, again in violation of his visa,” according to the CBP statement.
The statement went on: “CBP officers acted with professionalism, integrity and in accordance with federal laws and regulations.”
Using Discretion to Separate a Family
Atkinson said it was wrong for officials to separately interrogate a 9-year-old child. She said Fardin had never overstayed a visa and if he had attended school at some point, it was an honest misunderstanding of the terms of the visa.
She added that immigration officials have a lot of leeway in how they handle visa irregularities at ports of entry, and could have warned the family about tourist visa rules and allowed the brothers into the country conditionally while Laporte sorted out his student visa paperwork.
“Every step of the way they had a great deal of discretion and in every instance they used that discretion to separate these children and prevent the 9-year-old from returning to his family in a safe way,” said Atkinson.
She added that since the brothers’ experience came to light, other immigration attorneys are sharing stories of Haitian and African immigrants traveling with visas being denied entry.
"They're both Black and they're from Haiti,” Atkinson said, making reference to then-President Donald Trump’s widely reported 2018 remark that Haitians, Salvadorans and Africans are from “shithole countries” and that the U.S. would be better served with more immigrants from Norway.
“You know, we have to question whether or not this would have happened to two children from Sweden coming to return to school,” Atkinson said.
The family is urgently seeking Fardin's release, she said.