14-year-old fights leukemia alone at Duke because her mom is stuck at the border

Two Triangle-area churches, a Duke oncologist, a N.C. congressman and an immigrant advocacy group are trying to help a 14-year-old leukemia patient’s mother gain permission to come from Mexico to Durham to be with her daughter during treatment.

The girl is a U.S. citizen who was born in Raleigh and has been living in Mexico since 2010. Her mother is a citizen of Mexico.

Cole Miller, founding director of Solidarity Now, which advocates for the protection of human rights on the U.S. southern border, said Dalia Perez first brought her daughter, Ixcell, from Chiapas, Mexico, to the crossing at Tijuana, Mexico, into San Diego four months ago. She asked that both be allowed to travel to Raleigh for Ixcell’s medical care, Miller said in a telephone interview with The News & Observer. In a video posted on Solidarity Now’s website, Dalia Perez describes bringing Ixcell to the border on the advice of the girl’s doctor, who indicated Ixcell needed immediate treatment to save her life.

At the crossing, Perez says in the video, she and her daughter were brought early in the morning to meet with border officials, who took everything the pair had with them: cell phones, suitcases and Ixcell’s U.S. passport and birth certificate. Perez also had paperwork from the doctor in Mexico showing Ixcell’s leukemia diagnosis and the recommendation that she seek care in the U.S., Perez said. Her daughter was visibly ill, she said.

The pair were told to wait, Perez said. In the afternoon, she said, they were locked in a “very cold” room with only a mat on the floor. As the hours passed, Perez said she knocked on the door to ask for help but no one came until 3 p.m. the next day.

At that point, Perez said, a border official asked if Perez was seeking political asylum in the U.S. or if she was fleeing persecution in Mexico.

“No,” she said she responded. “The only reason I want to enter the United States is my daughter’s illness. She has leukemia. I brought all the papers.”

Perez said she and Ixcell were escorted out to the Tijuana side, and told to pray that God would take away the cancer.

Cole said Ixcell’s brother, who lives in Raleigh, then traveled to California, met his sister at the border and was able to bring her back to North Carolina, where she was admitted to Duke.

In June, Ixcell’s pediatric oncologist at Duke, Michael D. Deel, wrote a letter to border authorities on Perez’s and Ixcell’s behalf. In it, he notes that Ixcell’s leukemia is a relapse, and as such comes with more complications than a first-time diagnosis. She is likely facing two and a half years of intensive treatment, he wrote.

“She has a life-threatening illness that requires numerous hospitalizations, clinic visits and painful procedures,” he said. “The physical and emotional aspects of receiving therapy for leukemia are too much for any child to endure without the support of close family members.”

“For this reason,” Deel wrote, “we sincerely and strongly advocate for Ixcell’s mother to receive humanitarian parole to come to the U.S. and provide the emotional support that Ixcell desperately needs. It is heartbreaking to see this young girl have to endure the emotional, mental and physical challenges of leukemia treatment without someone she knows and trusts by her side.”

Cole provided a copy of the letter, which has been marked, “Denied.”

U.S. Rep. David Price (D-NC) also has tried to intervene on Perez’s behalf. In a letter dated July 23, he asked that officials note that Perez “is not seeking asylum and wishes only to care for her daughter while she receives cancer treatment.”

Price said in his letter that his office had talked with an attorney for the family that Perez has interests in Mexico that would compel her to return there, including her husband, another child, a business and a property.

Cole said both letters have been presented to border officials and Perez continues to be denied entry to the U.S.

In Solidarity Now’s video on the case, Ixcell sits in a hospital bed, and says, through an interpreter, “This is about my mother. I want her to come here to take care of me. Because I need her. It’s not easy to have her so far away.”

Cole said he does not know why Perez is being denied entry. She was living in Raleigh under a temporary visa when Ixcell was born in 2005, he said. He does not know when the visa expired, but said Perez went back to Mexico in 2010, taking Ixcell with her. He said he does not believe Perez was charged with any crime in the U.S..

Calls to spokespeople for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in California and Washington were not returned.

In her mother’s absence, members of two churches have come to Ixcell’s aid, sending cards, delivering games, crafts and Spanish-language books, and offering comfort.

Rev. Carla Gregg-Kearns, pastor of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Cary, said by phone with The N&O that her congregation has teamed up with Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Durham, whose members live closer to Duke than those in the Cary congregation. Bilingual volunteers have been visiting Ixcell in the hospital, she said, though the number of visitors is limited because Ixcell’s treatments have suppressed her immune system, making her more susceptible than normal to secondary infections and illnesses.

Since Ixcell’s treatment began, Gregg-Kearns said, she has begun to lose her hair and experience other side effects.

“Our main concern in all of this has been the health and wellbeing of Ixcell,” Gregg-Kearns said. “Here is a child who is gravely ill, and what is best for her health? I think there is no question that what’s best for her health is for her mother to be here and to be able to be by her side, supporting her through this treatment.”

On its website, Solidarity Now has invited others to help press for Perez to be allowed to cross the border to visit her daughter.

Gregg-Kearns said she is disappointed in the U.S. government’s treatment of the family.

“It seems to me that it’s part of a pattern of cruelty,” the pastor said. “It’s just cruel not to allow a parent to be with their child during this kind of illness.”

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.