Emily Ruiz, a 4-year-old American citizen at the center of an immigration dispute, returned to the United States from Guatemala on Wednesday, according to her family's attorney, who accompanied her.
Emily's parents, who live on New York's Long Island, say the girl had spent several months in Guatemala. Her grandfather tried to bring her back to the U.S. this month but was refused entry because of a prior immigration violation, and they were both sent back to Guatemala.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials say the girl's parents, who are illegal immigrants, opted to have their daughter returned to Guatemala rather than pick her up, possibly because they were concerned they would confront questions about their own residency status.
The parents, through their attorney, contend that's not so.
"The CBP spokesman's statement is wrong," said attorney David Sperling. "The parents were not given the option to be reunited."
Emily arrived just after midnight Tuesday in New York, where she had a tearful reunion with her brother and parents, who hadn't seen her in more than five months, Sperling said.
"We are so happy that Emily has finally been reunited with her family in the United States, where she belongs," he said.
Her saga began March 11, when she traveled with her grandfather to the United States. Their flight to Kennedy Airport in New York was diverted to Dulles International outside Washington. It was there that immigration authorities detained the grandfather, who has not been identified.
Because he had an immigration infraction two decades ago, he was denied entry into the country.
This is where the accounts of what happened diverge.
"The parents were offered the chance to pick up the child but elected to have her return to Guatemala with her grandfather," U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling said in a statement. The agency, he said, "strives to reunite U.S. citizen children with their parents."
Sperling, the family attorney, argues that Emily's parents were told the two options were to return the girl to Guatemala or to have her placed in the custody of officials in Virginia. The girl's father, Leonel Ruiz, opted to have Emily go to Central America with her grandfather.
The CBP spokesman declined to comment further when asked about the family's claims.
Jeanne A. Butterfield, a former executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who is advising Sperling, said she was dubious of arguments that the girl's parents feared questions about their own immigration status.
"If that's the case, why would the father take his story national?" she asked, noting Leonel Ruiz has been interviewed by Univision and The New York Times. "He told the story, had his picture published. He is easily findable. I think it only buttresses the father's credibility."
Butterfield said she thinks a CBP staffer made a mistake by having the girl sent to Guatemala. "This is not a blanket policy. It just lifts up the culture asserted by some that if parents are undocumented they have less than full rights. It allows an agent to make a decision like this and feel like it's OK."
U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, whose district includes the Ruizes' hometown of Brentwood, was incensed by the ordeal and called for an investigation of what happened.
"This bureaucratic overreach and utter failure of commonsense has left a little girl _ a U.S. citizen, no less _ stranded thousands of miles from her parents," he said.
Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens contributed to this report.