McALLEN — As soon as Sanjuana Galicia spotted her son at the McAllen bus station in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, she raced toward him for an embrace that was nearly a month in the making.
It had been 26 days since she had last seen the Edinburg teen, a U.S. citizen federal authorities held for more than three weeks in detention facilities.
Although difficult to discern what was spoken, the tender moment between mother and son did all the talking necessary, as they buried their heads into each other’s arms while he clutched a small plastic bag with some of his belongings in one hand, and what appeared to be a federally issued folder in the other.
Francisco Erwin Galicia, an 18-year-old Edinburg Economedes soccer standout who prefers to be called Erwin, spent more than three weeks in federal custody despite being born in a Dallas hospital in December 2000 and showing proof of his citizenship.
Twenty-two of those days he spent at the McAllen Border Patrol Station, where overcrowding has become a national focal point and the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Office of the Inspector General.
“Here at the Border Patrol station, he said he was with a lot of people. He couldn’t even sleep. There was no space,” Sanjuana Galicia said in Spanish Tuesday night before reuniting with her son. “He said his beard was long because he couldn’t shower; (he was) malnourished.
“I’ve only seen him in photos and he’s really skinny.”
Federal authorities transferred Erwin to a detention facility in Pearsall, Texas on July 19 and finally allowed him to call his mother the following day.
“He said it was very different there. He could take a shower and he had a bed. They fed him, and most of all (he had) the right to make a phone call,” his mother said about the facility in Pearsall. “Not in McAllen. There he said it was the worst — just bad treatment.”
Immigration officials finally released him Tuesday after his attorney, Claudia Galan, and his mother made a public outcry.
The Monitor spoke to his mother at their Edinburg home just minutes before Erwin called her, saying his bus was about to depart from Pearsall and that he would see her in just a few hours at the McAllen Central Station.
It’s the same bus station where tens of thousands of migrants have started their journey into the interior of the country after being released from federal custody.
“Yes, mijo, I was more or less calculating the time it would take for you to arrive,” she told her son with obvious excitement in her voice. “I love you. We’ll see each other over there right now.”
The 42-year-old mother said she spent 26 days in agony, most of which were filled with uncertainty because she couldn’t find anyone who could give her information about her son’s whereabouts.
“I was desperate and hand-tied because they wouldn’t give me answers about him and how he was doing, what had happened — nothing,” she said. “It was something horrible that I don’t wish on anyone. I just couldn’t sleep thinking about my son because he has the right to be here. He’s a citizen.”
The J. Ecnonomedes High School student left home June 27 with several other people, including his younger brother Marlon Aldair Galicia, 17. They were headed to a soccer scouting event at Ranger College in North Texas.
The teen’s mother said her sons’ coaches have always had their best interests in mind.
“They’ve supported my son in both education and sports,” she said.
Two of the occupants in the vehicle were already students at the college, and her sons wanted to see if they could be admitted based on their soccer skills, Sanjuana Galicia said about the two teens heading into their senior year.
“I’m not lying. Their recognitions are there,” she said, pointing at a number of plaques, trophies and medals displayed around her small living room in San Carlos. “That’s aside from all of the ones I have tucked away.”
But while en route to the campus, Border Patrol agents at the Falfurrias checkpoint determined Sanjuana Galicia’s youngest son was undocumented, as was another occupant in the vehicle.
According to accounts from Marlon Galicia, Erwin told agents he was a U.S. citizen, but they refused to believe him, his mother said.
“My other son told me that they (agents) were talking amongst themselves and saying, ‘Look, I already inputted his data and he is a citizen. It’s there,’” she said. “But I don’t know why they were insistent that the documents were false.”
The confusion stemmed from a visitor visa Sanjuana Galicia solicited for Erwin many years ago, in which she falsely claimed that he was born in Mexico, Galan told The Monitor on Tuesday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, however, said it was more complicated than that, indicating he “provided conflicting reports” regarding the status of his citizenship in a joint statement with U.S. Border Patrol released Wednesday morning.
“Situations including conflicting reports from the individual and multiple birth certificates can, and should, take more time to verify,” the federal authorities said. “While we continue to research the facts of the situation, the individual has been released from ICE custody.
“Both CBP and ICE are committed to the fair treatment of migrants in our custody and continue to take appropriate steps to verify all facts of this situation.”
And while immigration officials worked to determine his status, his brother, Marlon, signed a voluntary deportation form and was subsequently deported to Reynosa, where he is currently staying with his maternal grandparents.
Sanjuana Galicia said her mother doesn’t yet know why Marlon is staying with them in the Mexican border town.
“She’s an elderly person and my sons are her adoration,” she said about her mother, who had a stroke last year. “She thinks Marlon is on vacation because of school, and she thinks Erwin is working.
“Right now, I don’t want to tell her anything until my son is here with me, so that she doesn’t worry. Once he’s out, we’ll talk to her about the problem and tell her it’s been solved.”
Some of her worries appeared to melt away at around 2:25 a.m. Wednesday, when a weary Erwin stepped down from a Valley Transit Company bus and walked into a mostly empty bus station.
After a round of kisses and hugs, Erwin gave a quick statement to The Monitor.
“I was desperate, worried about not knowing anything about my mom and my brother,” he said in Spanish. “Really, it was an experience — something you could say (was) traumatic. But right now everything has passed and we’re much better now.
“The bad has passed and I’m happy to be with her.”
In a statement issued Wednesday evening, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, expressed concern with Galicia’s detention.
“It is impermissible for an agent of CBP or ICE to detain a United States citizen who has a valid Texas driver’s license,” Gonzalez said in the statement. “Our federal agencies need to implement consistent standards for verifying immigration status to prevent anything like this from happening again.”
Gonzalez also urged citizens who find themselves in a similar situation to contact their U.S. congressman or senator “so the matter can be addressed and investigated.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include statements from ICE and U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, and corrected to reflect that a coach did not accompany the students.