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Viviane Leite is learning how to be a mother again. She’s well past the diaper stage with Christyan and Gabriel, now 9 and 7. She remembers teaching them to tie their shoes and say please years ago.
Yet the last month has been uncharted territory for Leite, an Ocean Township woman who spent two years separated from her sons after their father took them out of the country — in an international abduction case spanning multiple bureaucracies on two continents.
Leite, an unauthorized immigrant from Brazil, had to wrestle with the criminal justice systems in the U.S. and Brazil, where the boys’ father took them; custody courts in the two countries and American immigration agencies — work handicapped by her own immigration status.
And yet she prevailed, against the longest odds. Amid the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration, U.S. immigration officials granted a rare reprieve to reunite Leite with her two sons, including one who lacks legal status.
“It’s very uncommon, given orders of removal, three different court hearings in two different countries, and she had to win every single one,” said Andres Mejer, an immigration attorney who represented Leite.
The ordeal isn’t over. Her next struggle: helping her sons readjust to life in the United States.
“I don’t know yet what kind of difficulty I’m going to encounter because I have to learn what they like,” said Leite, 30, in Portuguese through a translator. “They have to get used to me again. … I learn with them.”
Every year, 600 to 800 children are abducted by a parent from the United States, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said last month during a hearing on international abductions. Every year, he said, fewer than 20 percent are returned to their rightful home.
Smith is the author of the Goldman Act, named after New Jersey father David Goldman, whose son was abducted by his Brazilian mother in 2004. The law creates specific protocols to ensure the speedy return of children abducted by a parent to other countries.
Smith argues that his law adds teeth to international treaties on the subject, but the executive branch — neither the Trump administration nor the prior Obama administration — has yet to enforce it.
In the meantime, families keep getting torn apart.
Leite’s case was further complicated by her lack of legal status. She overstayed a tourist visa around 2005, though she has a pending visa petition.
“I don’t know yet what kind of difficulty I’m going to encounter because I have to learn what they like.”
The abduction was the culmination of Leite’s tumultuous relationship with the boys’ father, Antonio Carlos Dias Jr., who was also an unauthorized immigrant from Brazil.
Leite and Dias met in the United States around 2005 and spent a little more than a decade together. They conceived a son, Christyan, in the United States before a domestic dispute landed Dias in deportation proceedings, Leite and Mejer say.
When Dias was deported in 2008, Leite said, he convinced her to return to Brazil and bring along the baby.
The couple had a second son, Gabriel, in 2010 while they lived in Brazil.
Leite said they fought throughout their stay in Brazil, yet in 2014, she followed him back across the U.S. border, with their two sons.
The family eventually made their way to the Shore, but their domestic situation took a turn for the worse. When she broke up with Dias in 2016, he allegedly attacked Leite in their Long Branch home. Read the police report below.
Leite told police Dias grabbed her wrist, held her neck and punched her leg several times, according to the police report.
Dias was arrested and charged with simple assault. He was barred from returning to the apartment but a week later begged Leite to see their children. She complied, not knowing he would hop on a plane with them to Brazil.
“He calls her once he arrived in Brazil saying, ‘I’m here and so are the kids. If you want to see them again, you have to come back with me and you have to take me back in Brazil,'” attorney Mejer recalled.
Instead, Leite pressed charges against Dias. She also helped police capture him near the U.S.-Mexican border when he tried to return for her.
Dias is now serving a five-year sentence for child custody interference in Southern State Correctional Facility in Maurice River in Cumberland County. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to deport him after his prison sentence is completed, officials say. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
That case made Leite eligible for a U visa, which gives legal status to immigrants who are victims of crimes and help police get criminals off the street.
Leite launched a petition for the boys’ return through the Hague Convention, an international treaty designed to ensure the speedy return of a child internationally abducted by a parent from one member country to another. In the meantime, she sought full custody of the boys in the U.S., which she easily won.
But Leite said she didn’t expect a second custody battle, launched by Dias’ mother in Brazil. Despite having sole custody of the boys in the U.S., Leite spent more than a year in legal proceedings for custody in Brazil.
In August, a Brazilian judge ruled in her favor but required that she pick up her sons or have them returned by a U.S. Department of State official, which was outside of the agency’s purview.
That created a new hurdle for Leite, who is still an unauthorized immigrant in the U.S., pending visa or not.
Leaving the United States would subject her to a ban of up to 10 years for trespassing. And Gabriel, who was born in Brazil and brought to the country by his parents as a toddler, became subject to the ban when his father took him to Brazil in 2016.
So having a friend bring the boys back for her wasn’t an option, Leite said.
From Leite’s perspective, relocating to Brazil was no option either. She has no close relatives there, no support, no protection from Dias once he is deported from the U.S. Here, she has an uncle, friends and a steady job in maintenance.
“She knew the possibility for her and for her kids to move forward was limited,” said Mejer, the immigration attorney. “She fought for a better life, and she fought for a better life with her kids.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is still reviewing her U visa petition, but the agency helped her get her sons back. In the fall, the agency granted Gabriel humanitarian parole, a form of permission for people without legal status to enter or re-enter the country.
In mid-March, her Brazilian lawyer’s partner escorted both children on a plane back to New Jersey.
Leite said she was scared when she met them at Newark Liberty International Airport.
“My fear was that there was a lot of people around us. I was worried they’d get scared,” she said in Portuguese. “So I wanted to get away fast to enjoy them, to hug them, to make up for lost time.”
Then she saw them.
“That’s when I knew for sure, it’s over,” she said. “They’re here with me. It’s over. It was sheer joy.”
Leite stayed home from work that week, taking them to and from school, walking with them to the park and getting them reacquainted with life in New Jersey.
They’re learning English again and, in a lot of ways, life is normal. Christyan, the older and more reserved boy, spends his time playing with his skates or drawing. He said his favorite color is red. Gabriel is louder and more outgoing.
Gabriel chimed in at times throughout the interview. At one point, he exclaimed that he made the high score in the mobile racing game he was playing.
There are still arguments and occasional outbursts, but little by little, they’re growing together. “It’s the affection,” she said, “the first time they stopped being shy and started being affectionate. They let go. They were more present.”
“It’s a hug. It’s a kiss,” she added. “It’s calling me mom. It’s their presence.”
Translations provided by Arizona Republic editor Debora Britz.