Perilous Times

Separated at the border: Families torn apart by US immigration policy. Videos.

Perilous, Dangerous Times: Great upheaval of humans. Mass migrations, refugees, homelessness due to war, famine, pestilence, natural disasters, political persecution, ethnic persecution, religious persecution, economic conflict. The time will be exceedingly ‘dangerous’ for migrant/refugee women baring young children, who have little to no access to food, shelter, medicine, water or protection. It will be so perilous that those women who don’t have babies or young children will be considered ‘lucky.’

2 Timothy 3:1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.

Matthew 24:19 And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!

Mark 13:17 But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!

Luke 21:23But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people.

Luke 23:29 For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.

Matthew 24:21. For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.

Separated at the border: Families torn apart by US immigration policy

Telegraph.co.uk November 2019

The Trump administration’s hardline treatment of child immigrants shocked the world. Ben Riley-Smith meets families still traumatised by the controversial policy.

Elias can remember all about school. Sitting at home on the outskirts of New Orleans, he rattles through a list of exercises they did that day. 

“Jumping jacks”, he begins. “We did squats, too”. He pretends to bounce something, indicating basketball, and then adds football.

Aged eight, Elias has only been in America a little more than a year but already he is adopting his new homeland’s culture. He is wearing a Michael Jordan T-shirt, emblazoned with the sportsman’s famous number 23, and his shoes are coloured red, white and blue.

As he answers questions his grin, dominated by two large front teeth with a prominent gap, is on permanent display. It is only when asked to recall the moment he was separated from his mother at the US-Mexico border that the smile fades.

“We were locked up, I don’t know how many days,” he says at first. Then the responses get shorter. Do you remember the point you had to split? “A little”, he says.

Asked if he found his time alone hard, Elias nods. His eyes flick across to Milagros, his mother, who is in tears on the sofa a few meters away.

Do you remember what it felt like? Another nod, but no words. Prompted, he looks away from his mother. “It felt…” He pauses for seven seconds. “Unhappy.”

Elias’s experience is not unique. Since Donald Trump became US president thousands of foreign children have been separated from parents after entering America. 

It was official policy from spring to early summer last year. Anyone crossing the border illegally would be charged. If they were with a child, that meant separation. 

The measure, part of a “zero tolerance” drive on illegal migration, was an attempt to create a disincentive for those seeking to cross into America from the south. 

But when word spread of what was happening, accompanied by leaked recordings of children wailing for their mothers, a fierce backlash followed. The policy was ditched. 

The exact number of children affected is unknown. Between April and June 2018, when the policy was in place, around 3,000 (6×5) children were separated. But the government has said that at least another 1,500 (5+5+5)were impacted before that.

Nor has the practice strictly ended. If you are deemed to pose a danger to your child separation can still happen. Around 1,000 (5+5) more migrant children have been split from a parent since June 2018, sometimes for minor past crimes like drink-driving or shoplifting. Immigration lawyers are challenging those decisions, arguing officials are using the get-out to effectively continue the policy. 

Slowly the impact of separation is beginning to emerge. In September, the inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department, an internal watchdog, produced a report on mental health services in facilities for child migrants. The findings on separation were damning.

“According to program directors and mental health clinicians, separated children exhibited more fear, feelings of abandonment, and post-traumatic stress than did children who were not separated,” read one line. Another noted: “Some separated children expressed acute grief that caused them to cry inconsolably.”

To understand the real impact of family separation, the Telegraph has spent months seeking out children and parents split at the border to hear their stories firsthand.

Three families agreed to talk. Some requested to speak under a different name, given on-going asylum cases or the dangerous circumstances they fled. Others asked for some details to be left out.

The US administration was not approached over the individuals cases, given the desire for anonymity. But lawyers involved corroborated key parts of their stories.

All the families spoke through a translator. They shared their experiences because they wanted people to know what was being done by the Trump administration.

Milagros, in her early 30s, left a Central American country with Elias last year. She had faced racism “ever since I was born” due to the colour of her skin and did not want her son to experience the same.

Travelling through Mexico, where she suffered some haunting events her lawyers asked not to be detailed, Milagros presented herself at the Texas border to claim asylum in early 2018.

Once in America, mother and son were put in what many migrants call the “ice box” – notoriously cramped and freezing holding cells in Customs and Border Protection facilities.

The border officials were allegedly dismissive of her chances of success. “They said there is no asylum here for you guys,” Milagros says. “You guys only come here saying that you are fleeing from something but you are just criminals.”

Milagros had once attempted to get refuge in America but had been deported after she failed to pay bail. She says the guards predicted the same outcome this time round.

And then they said a new policy was in place. The officials told her to say goodbye to her son and leave the room. Elias was aged just seven.

Milagros becomes tearful as she remembers that moment. The paper napkin in her hand which she has been folding and unfolding, rolling and unrolling, is moved to her eyes.

Voice wavering, she recalls what was in her mind: “I just thought, why did I come here? I had already suffered so much. Why did I bring my son here to suffer?”

She goes on: “He was just crying. He was saying ‘mum, what will become of us? What’s going to become of us?’ And so I told him, ‘you’re going to be fine. And if they deport me and send you out here, then you’re going to behave well, okay?’”

For the next fortnight – or perhaps longer, she cannot remember exactly – Milagros had no idea where Elias was. She was moved to Port Isabel detention facility, at the southern tip of Texas. Elias, she would later learn, had been sent to a shelter in New York.

“I was pretty lonely,” she says, recalling her time locked away without her son. “I really did feel like I was going to die.”

The conditions made things harder. Her bed was right above the air-conditioning unit. “I could feel it running through my body like I was freezing,” Milagros says. She complained but was not moved.

Her story turned when one day a group of lawyers visited. They had heard family separations were taking place and wanted to help. Milagros, who by now had managed to speak to Elias, approached them and they took on her case. 

Despite that scepticism from the border guards, she eventually won release. “So liberated,” she says of that moment. “I felt like ‘wow, I did it”. Her asylum case would work its way through the courts while she lived in America.

And yet, close to two months after separation, Milagros had still not seen her son. The moment of reunification came at the airport close to midnight. 

Hours went by as she waited with Ruby Powers, a lawyer from Powers Law Group in Houston, Texas, who was instrumental in her release. And then Elias arrived. 

The embrace was heartfelt. There was joy. But also a degree of pain. Milagros noticed, as a mother would, that Elias had lost weight. He was also angry about what had happened. 

“I was really excited but he had this feeling of ‘why did you let me get taken to this place’,” Milagros says. Her voice again begins to crack as tears form.

“He would just say ‘you told me that they weren’t going to separate us. You told me that the people in the United States were good’.

“When we were coming up here [to America] I told him ‘we’re going to go to a country where nobody will bother you’. That’s what I believed at the time.

“And so after they had separated us, he started saying ‘that was pure lies what you said, they treat people bad here.’”

The nightmare of separation was over, but the pain remained.

Nery’s story shares similarities to Milagros. Forty three and from Guatemala, he also crossed into Texas seeking asylum. He too was separated from a child within days of entering custody. But it would be almost a year before Nery saw his son again. 

Speaking at his house on America’s North East coast, Nery agrees to talk on the record and have his face shown in photographs. His son, also called Nery, shared his recollections as well. 

Nery Sr speaks with warmth and energy, answering questions at length and with gesticulations. He says he feels deeply for those families still separated and wants to draw attention to what is happening. 

Protection was the reason Nery fled to America. His son, then aged 15, was being approached by gangs with a clear message – either join or be killed. The threat was all too real in the part of rural Guatemala they called home.

Fearing the worst, the pair took off in the middle of the night. Only a goodbye to his wife and a few other relatives was possible. Not even his youngest children were told. Nery thought they would not understand.

The journey to the US was brutal. Part of it was spent hidden in a lorry with a roof so low his head would bruise and people would faint. At one point he was forced to hand over all the money he had, 5,000 (5) Mexican pesos, to Mexican police demanding payment.

Reaching the Rio Grande river that separates America and Mexico, the two Nerys had wanted to register at a port of entry but the queues were huge. Instead they trudged across the river, which was just ankle-high mud then, and turned themselves in. It was May 2018.

Nery Sr and Nery Jr, like Milagros and her son Elias, ended up in the “ice box”. They too were informed the rules had changed and they had to separate. The message was given, Nery Sr says, without a hint of sympathy from the guards. 

He remembers the moment well. There were about 20 (5+5+5+5) migrants together in a single room, 50% (5) parents and 50% (5) children. The adults were told to say goodbye and the children were led out together. 

Nery’s eyes fill with tears remembering those last moments with his son. “It is just so sad because you’ve already been through so much suffering,” he says.

“I said ‘don’t worry, no one’s going to hurt you, we came here looking for support.’ It was a terrible situation, there were kids of two or three who were clinging to their mothers and they were taking them away from them.” Both father and son were crying.

Nery Jr, sitting next to his father during the interview, largely stays silent. He is wearing a Guatemala football shirt and puma trainers.

Asked for his memories, he says: “The only thing I had time to do was hug him and tell him we would see each other again soon. Then they came for me and there wasn’t a lot of time.”

Sitting on a bus with other children being driven away from the facility, Nery Jr was not told where he was going. During the journey there was “almost no talking”. 

It would be around a month before Nery Sr learned even the most basic information about where his son had been taken. During that time he was moved to a detention facility in New Mexico, then a prison in Texas, then back to New Mexico. 

All the while he could not even call home. He needed money to put on a phone card and all his savings were in the pockets of the Mexican police. His son, it would later emerge, was in a shelter in New York – a state commonly used to house migrant children 

Nery Sr was not allowed to stay in America. Instead he was deported. Facing the prospect of months in jail, he agreed to leave in the hope that it would increase his son’s chances of staying. “They would have deported us anyway,” he says. 

After five months, Nery Jr was released and allowed to live with a sponsor family while his asylum case progressed. But he was still separated from his father. It was only after Nery Sr was found by a legal aid non-profit, Al Otro Lado, which successfully got a group of deported migrants reunited with their children that he got back into the US.

Nery describes the moment he saw his son again in April 2019 – 11 months after being separated – as “beautiful”. He had arrived at the house at 9am but Nery Jr was already at school. It meant he got to watch his son walking down the street from a window before they embraced. 

“It is the hardest thing,” he says now looking back, his son by his side. “Taking your child away from you is like taking away part of your heart. People think it’s hard but they haven’t lived it.

“I think it’s the hardest thing anyone could ever go through. Your child is the flower of your life, it’s the best part of your life. Then to think that something could go wrong, that bad things can happen…” 

He trails off before finishing the thought.

Esperanza, like Nery, has seven children. Most remain in the Central American country she fled. She now lives outside New York city with her son Lucas.

In her mid-30s, Esperanza arrives for the interview wearing a black T-shirt with the words “ZERO LUCKY” in green lettering. When she smiles two gold teeth flash on the top row. Her son declined to talk. 

The story behind Esperanza’s flight is horrific. She fell in love with her first boyfriend but he began drinking and turned abusive. One day, she says, he raped her in front of their children. 

She fled to her grandmother’s with the children but he did not stop contacting her. That threat, plus the gangs attempting to recruit her sons, made her seek out America. 

In May 2018 she crossed the Rio Grande, clinging to the inner tube of a tyre with Lucas, then aged 15. They paid a man $1,500 (5) to pull them across as he swam. She wanted to flee with more of her children but did not have enough money and feared the dangerous trip. 

Reaching McAllen, another Texas border town, they were soon apprehended. Arriving at the detention facility, she remembers being told: “We need to put your son with the boys and you stay with the girls. It’s just going to be a few minutes.”

She would not see him again for four months. There had been no warning of the separation, no big goodbye or final embrace. In fact it was the opposite – she had been told it would be temporary. 

When the guards admitted the split was permanent she demanded to see her son one last time. “I asked ‘can I say goodbye?’. They said ‘no you can’t’,” she recalls. “I started crying. They said ‘no sorry, there’s nothing we can do’.”

Esperanza’s misery turned to agony a few days later. Given a top bunk bed by detention officials, the wound from a Caesarean section she had 15 (5+5+5) months earlier reopened. Lying in an infirmary bed in intense pain, she still had no idea what had happened to her son.

After about a fortnight they did finally speak. “He was very sad and very nervous,” Esperanza says. “It was horrible”. She said her son sounded in shock. They would talk regularly after that, but every time Lucas would be crying.

Esperanza expected to be deported. But eventually, with the help of lawyers she calls “angels”, she won the right to stay in America as her asylum case progressed. That would eventually lead to a reunion with her son.

Recalling that moment, Esperanza gets more emotional that at any other point during the interview. Lucas, who had been in a shelter in New York, had already been released. She walked up to the door of her sister’s house where he was staying and knocked.

First her sister answered. Then Lucas ran into her arms. “I said ‘my son, I am so sorry you went through this suffering with me, but I never imagined that we were going to be apart’,” Esperanza says, her eyes filling with tears. 

“I hugged him and we cried so much. I really couldn’t believe it after so long. It was like a dream that I was living, because the rest was a nightmare.”

“He said ‘no mum, it’s not your fault, why are you asking me for forgiveness. I know you wanted the best for me and I know you were always there for me.’”

Esperanza says she “never imagined” the suffering they would experience. Had she known, she says, she would never have set off for America. 

We do not know exactly how many migrant children have been separated by the Trump administration. It is at least 5,500 (5). The figure is being added to every month. 

Nor do we know what impact it has had. For many the separations are only a year or so old. Some of those affected are still young. 

In that inspector general’s report, there are moments where the trauma experienced can be glimpsed. It says that some children felt “angry and confused”. Others expressed “feelings of fear or guilt”.

One medical director quoted said children’s psychological pain would manifest as “physical symptoms”, such as complaints like “my chest hurts” or “I can’t feel my heart”. 

Not knowing what happened is half the worry. All three parents who talked to this newspaper said their children were reluctant to describe what they experienced alone.

Back in New Orleans, Milagros and Elias are trying to rebuild their lives. She has a job at a hotel in the city centre and wants to learn English. He appears to be making friends at school. 

But the damage is still there. Elias talks less than he used to. He can be a “little rebellious”. And, most worrying to his mother, he never opens up about what happened. 

“When I ask him about those things he won’t answer me,” she says, beginning to choke up again. “He just sits there staring at me, that’s all.”

Sometimes Milagros considers getting a psychiatrist. But she cannot afford it. Elias is not yet nine. She hopes time will prove a healer.

Categories: Perilous Times

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