Two girls ages 4 and 8 were reunited in Mexico with their deported migrant parents Monday, after the couple was allowed to offer testimony in custody hearings in Pennsylvania via Internet phone-and-image conferencing.
U.S. and Mexican lawyers for the couple say it is the first time they know of that a U.S. court has allowed testimony in a custody case to be made over the Web, using voice and image conferencing via a service like Skype.
The parents' Mexican lawyer, Gustavo Garcia, said the cost of renting professional video conferencing facilities, which have been used in court testimony in the past, runs between $300 and $500 an hour. That amount is often prohibitive for parents deported from the U.S.
Such couples often are sent home by U.S. authorities after being caught without proper documents, meaning it is very difficult to get visas to appear to testify before U.S. courts. They are left with a frustrating, long-distance battle they often can't pay for.
"We estimate that there very probably hundreds of such cases," Garcia said shortly before the girls arrived at Mexico City's international airport.
The parents, Alfonso Mejia and Margarita Almaraz, live in a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital and said they don't have much money.
U.S. lawyer Deirdre Agnew helped persuade a court in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to accept the couple's testimony via Skype. She said the low-cost alternative could offer hope to other families.
"That's what we're hoping, that this has opened a door," said Agnew, who flew to Mexico City with the girls. "I think that this can be used as a model."
The case recalls a well-known custody battle in 2010, when Mexican mother Cirila Balthazar Cruz won custody of her 1-year-old child, Ruby, after Mississippi authorities accused her of being an unfit mother.
Like that case, there were allegations in Pennsylvania of physical abuse, by Mejia against two of Almaraz's children from a previous relationship.
Their lawyers said the charges in both cases were unfounded and based on cultural misunderstandings.
The lawyers also noted that the allegations against Mejia were never proved, and said there was never any accusation of abuse against Ashley, 4, and Ashanti, 8, both of whom were born in the United States.
Unfamiliar with U.S. legal proceedings and scared because they were undocumented migrants, the parents missed court dates and the state took the two girls away from them in 2009. The parents were subsequently deported.
"They had already started the process to terminate the parental rights of the parents, to try to adopt the children out to an American family," Agnew said.
After the parents provided testimony via the Internet several times and proved they had undergone therapy and complied with court requirements, a judge ordered the girls returned to their parents. On Monday, the family was finally reunited after more than two years apart.
"They were excited," Almaraz said of her daughters' reaction to the homecoming.
Mejia said he hoped their case will help others in their plight.
"I would like to make a call that this not only be a precedent, but that it be continued, to help us to make this a reality for other parents as well, so that they can be with their parents once again," Mejia said.