Antony Ortiz walked into the courtroom in Houston wearing a light gray hoodie, khakis and black tennis shoes with red laces. He looked his age, but he didn’t act it. He didn’t smile or fidget. He sat up straight and waited patiently.
The 9-year-old was filled with hope that Tuesday would be the day he finally reunited with his mother. The two had been separated for 81 days since they arrived together at the US-Mexico border. Under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, Elsa Ortiz Enriquez, had been sent back to Guatemala without her son – and she had been fighting to get him back ever since.
Meantime, Antony had been among more than 380 children who, as of last week, were in the custody of the US Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, and whose parents had been deported, data reported by the government show.
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the judge called his case. By 9:15 a.m., Antony was wiping away tears.
Through big headphones filled with a court translator’s voice, Antony learned that Immigration Judge Chris Brisack ruled that he could “voluntarily depart” the United States, a process that could take the government as long as 60 days to arrange. The prospect of having to wait two more months to see his mom rattled the boy and his attorneys.
But then, just hours later, a phone call brought unexpected news – and Antony was boarding his first flight ever, en route to his mom.
’This is an outrage’
Unlike many children brought to court by the vanload, Antony had private attorneys: Michael Avenatti, perhaps best known for representing adult film star Stormy Daniels, who has alleged an affair with President Donald Trump, which he denies; and Ricardo de Anda, a civil rights attorney Avenatti hired to assist in the case.
Avenatti had gone to court Tuesday offering a quick solution: At his own expense, he’d been ready to escort Antony back to his mother the same day. But the government insisted on its own process, and the court set a timetable of no more than 60 days.
Antony cried at the prospect that he’d have to wait even longer to see his mother again. And Avenatti fumed.
“This is an outrage, and now we have to work through bureaucratic red tape in order to ensure this boy is released at some point, and it could take upwards of 45 to 60 days. It makes no sense,” Avenatti said. “I am offering to take him today, right now.”
Avenatti and de Anda broke the news to Antony’s mom by phone. She said she’d been nervous, waiting to hear what happened. They told her it might be another 60 days until she could see her son again. She began to cry.
“I am crying because I cannot do anything. I am not there,” Ortiz Enriquez said in Spanish. “I thought about going back and finding him, but they told me that would complicate things.”
HHS delivers unexpected news
Then, Avenatti’s phone rang. It was an HHS official.
She’d heard about the lawyer’s offer to temporarily take custody of the child and return him to his mom. She didn’t understand why the government attorney or the court hadn’t just agreed to it, especially since the Justice Department has faced pressure from a federal judge who ruled the government must reunite as quickly as possible families separated under the zero tolerance rule.
Several conversations later – and eight hours after the court hearing – HHS employees escorted the 9-year-old to George Bush Intercontinental Airport and handed him over to his lawyers. Antony boarded a plane with de Anda and Avenatti, whose sudden foray into the immigration debate raised eyebrows after he announced he was seriously considering running for President.
But Avenatti, who said he’s taken on dozens of similar cases, pushed back on critics who claim his immigration casework is all about the news coverage.
“That is ludicrous. This isn’t a publicity stunt. I’ve been quietly representing dozens of families for weeks now, traveling around the country doing good work,” he said. “My record speaks for itself.”
’It’s a miracle God’s given me’
Three hours later, Antony landed in Guatemala City.
His mother saw him and fell to her knees. She grabbed him, her tears flowing.
The boy used both his hands to wipe her face. He told her not to cry.
But she wept all the more. And again, he wiped her tears.
“I started crying with joy, and he kept telling me not to cry because if there is one thing he does not like is seeing me cry,” Ortiz Enriquez told CNN.
Her son was tired and shy, surrounded by strangers. His mother was relieved and thankful.
“It’s such unexpected news. It’s a miracle God’s given me,” she said. “I never thought I was going to be surprised. It was supposed to just (be) a day in court.”