Note: pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of the women.
“It’s not luck, it’s a miracle,” Karen told me.
That’s how this young mother describes the fact that she’s finally out of detention and “free” to try to reunite with her elementary-school-aged child.
The same applies for Sandra, another mother released along with Karen from the Port Isabel Processing Center, in Los Fresnos. She has not seen her two young children since she entered the United States the second week of June.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, reunification is not difficult. All Sandra and Karen have to do is dial an automated government hotline.
But DHS is wrong. It also takes the persistent efforts of a variety of service and advocacy non-profits, a small chunk of the $20 million that organizations like Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) have raised through the donations of people nationwide, volunteers willing to sit for hours outside of a detention center without any guarantee that people will be released, Good Samaritans to drive the parents for five hours to where their children are supposed to be, organizations and individuals willing to provide a bed, at least two attorneys in two different cities helping with different aspects of the legal process, and the women’s ability to maintain composure, faith, and hope that everything will work out.
Karen is right. It is a miracle.
A Glimpse Inside
At the shelter where Karen and Sandra were staying after being released from Port Isabel, Neta asked them if they had everything they needed. With timid smiles, they said they did. Seconds later they admitted that they could use some shorts, clean socks, and underwear. The shelter likely had those items. The women were too embarrassed to ask.
Sandra and Karen might be shy about such things, but beneath their timidity is a prodigious strength.
Sandra recounted the details of her life in the US after entering through the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. She had come in search of safety and refuge for herself and her children. Instead, she encountered “zero tolerance” and the US immigration-detention system.
Unlike Karen, who was quickly sent to Port Isabel, Sandra experienced the fine details of US immigration system chaos.
Shuffled around at odd hours of the night, she first spent time in a Border Patrol holding center— the hielera, as detainees often refer to it, because it feels as cold as an icebox. From the hielera she was moved to an immigration detention facility somewhere in Texas, five hours from the perrera in McAllen— the dog kennel, as detainees call it— where the cells are packed so tightly that inmates can hardly move. After that, she was shipped to Port Isabel, in Los Fresnos. In transit, she was returned to another perrera.
The nights, she said, were painfully cold, especially at the Border Patrol holding centers and the perreras. In the first holding cell, she was taken to, she and other detainees were directed to reach into a box filled with shiny little rectangular bags. Confused, Sandra guessed they were food and grabbed one. She guessed wrong.
They turned out to be thin, space or solar blankets. “Had I known they were to cover myself, I would have grabbed two,” Sandra said. “One for the floor and one for me…but nobody told me anything…we slept on the concrete floor, just floor.” When the detainees complained, the guards ignored them.
“You feel like your bones are going to crack from the cold,” Sandra said. But that hardly compared to the pain and worry that followed.
Almost upon arrival to an international bridge in Hidalgo County, her children were taken away from her.
“They didn’t tell us anything, whether they were separating us or anything. They just sent them to the left and us to the right,” Sandra said. During processing, CBP took her and her children’s identification documents. When she asked about the children, she was told they would be with her soon.
“I started crying; I’m used to being with my children. I never imagined that they would take them away from me.”
At about 2 AM, an agent called Sandra out of her cell. From the other side of the room, she could see that her children were also being taken from their cell. For a moment she believed they would be held together. But an agent snapped a picture of her with her kids, and then they were separated again. The next day Sandra was transferred out.
Sandra’s talk about the constant shuffling from one center to the other sounds like a byzantine, logistical nightmare that makes no sense— removed from one place, taken to another, and back to the first place. When asked to clarify the timeline, Sandra she had a hard time counting the number of days she spent at each center.
In detention, she explained, it’s easy to lose track of time. “We’re not thinking about dates anymore,” she said. “We just think about our kids. When will they take us to them?”
One time, she forgot it was her child’s birthday until someone told her the date She cried when she realized this.
Still, Sandra could narrate in other ways the passage of time in detention. She had worked out a sort of situational timeline.
For example, she recalled being taken to criminal court with shackles around her feet, hips, and wrists. She declared herself guilty of illegal entry, upon the advice of public defenders. She remembered the morning in court where she was not given food or water, leaving her fasting since eating a cold bologna sandwich for dinner the night before. She wouldn’t get the chance to eat or drink water until late afternoon that day. Amid her and the other detainees’ thirst, she said, the guards drank water in front of them.“It hurt to see them drinking water and not give us any. I asked myself, ‘Why are they so mean?’”
Next was Port Isabel, but only briefly. Before she knew it, she was on another bus, this time to somewhere five hours away. On arriving, she realized it had been more than eight days since she showered. She spent only a couple of days at the new place. Then, three days later and without warning, at 1 AM, it was time to go again.
Each time she boarded a bus, Sandra hoped that at the end of the journey her children might also be there. That never happened. Instead, with each journey and each disillusionment, Sandra grew increasingly anxious and apprehensive. When she was sent back to Port Isabel, she heard helicopters and planes overhead. “My God!” she thought. “They’re going to deport me. I’m not going to see my children!’”
She had ample reason for fear. In addition to the questions which all the shuffling raised, she remembers at least one officer telling her that “they were going to take our children and give them up for adoption.”
The guards often prevented the detainees from watching TV news, but sometimes the detainees insisted. This is how Sandra heard the pleas of a 6-year-old child who had been separated from her mother— Sandra knew who the child was because her mother was now at Port Isabel. Sandra also saw parents on TV who had been deported without their children.
Things were slightly different for Karen, though no easier. Her child was taken from her when she was escorted to court for criminal prosecution under zero tolerance. When she returned, her child was no longer there.
Both she and Sandra suffered tremendously in detention. Although detained women tried to lend each other hope, even that effort was limited— Port Isabel and other detention centers bar women from sitting on each other’s beds or hugging one another.
Detention: Shuffling, cold nights, bologna sandwiches, tap water that tastes like chlorine, and the constant worry of not knowing what was next, or where one’s children were.
But things were about to change, at least for these two women.
Mobilization and Advocacy Outside
Both Sandra and Karen had their credible fear interviews early into their detention. Incredibly, without any legal support or prior advice, they passed.
They told Neta that they knew women who had been detained for as long as two months in detention and still had not had a credible fear interview. This is the interview that asylum seekers must undertake to establish credible fear of returning to their country of origin and to continue with the asylum process.
Last week, Debbie Nathan, an RGV-based journalist who was in communication with another detainee, established contact with Sandra.
When Nathan learned that Sandra had passed her credible fear interview, she contacted RAICES to let them know that Sandra needed her $1500 bond paid. In addition to her, several other parents who had passed their credible fear interviews were languishing at Port Isabel but were unable to pay their bonds.
Although RAICES had money, bond was just one piece of the process. Also needed were people to actually pay the bond, house Sandra, and transport her to a large city hours away, where her children were held by the government.
Among their networks, RAICES and other attorneys put out a call for local support. Jodi Goodwin, a local immigration attorney, responded. She helped deliver the bond, found lodging for Sandra, and did other work needed to secure her release. Goodwin also found a local shelter for Sandra to stay at immediately following her release from Port Isabel.
Local volunteers were on standby, waiting to help. Last week, Sandra was finally freed. So was Karen.
“It’s like this not so underground railroad,” Goodwin told Neta. “I mean they came out of detention with the clothes on their back…They don’t have anything. They have to rely on charity…and people who provide donations here.”
When asked what she thought about the DHS hotline, Goodwin replied, “That’s a joke.” According to Goodwin, the best information available from the hotline is what city the child is in and what legal service organizations might be in the area. “They don’t tell you exactly what shelter they’re in and they don’t give you an exact contact number,” Goodwin said. That takes more work.
Without support, Goodwin believes it’s highly unlikely parents will be able to navigate the reunification process or their immigration cases.
Even for seasoned attorneys like Goodwin, this moment presents unprecedented challenges. “The immigration side of the work,” she states, “is pretty straightforward…What is not easy is dealing with somebody who is going through current trauma imposed by our government. [As an attorney], it is not easy to have to be working two angles at once-…trying to get them to focus on their case…but also trying to figure out where their kids are, dealing with emotional trauma, trying to make a space in the mother’s and father’s being to…work on their own case [when] they’re too preoccupied not knowing where their kids are and not knowing their well-being.”
The Road Ahead
Within two days of Sandra and Karen’s release, a volunteer was located who could drive the women five hours to recover their children. Just before they left, Neta caught up with them.
They knew that a long road awaited them, filled with paperwork, court dates, and much uncertainty for them and their children. But they were taking it one step at a time. Following almost a month of detention, they were hopeful that the government would facilitate reunification with their children with the same speed and efficiency as it had cruelly separated them.
By the time Sandra and Karen started their journey, news had already broken about the Trump administration’s not being able to meet a judge’s demand to reunite young children with their parents by July 10. The government has shown it is untrustworthy. But many things about the two women are rock solid.
Among them is the painful but firm determination in their tearful eyes. They were dead set on doing everything in their power to reunite with and protect their children.
Locally, people in the community have vowed to also do everything in their power to do what the government isn’t doing. Despite lack of expertise in the intricacies of the US immigration system, and despite the demands on their time and money, they are doing what they can to fix a mess they did not make.
Watching Sandra and Karen board the car was a reminder of all the people still in Port Isabel— all those whom the local residents, journalists, and volunteers might not know about or find— people just a few miles away, their names and identification numbers unknown, who are falling through the cracks.
On Sunday at the shelter where Sandra and Karen spent the night, a US-citizen woman hugged them and apologized on behalf of her country, her government.
An apology is due. But many of our local and national elected officials will probably never make it. Nor will they be held accountable, either, for what happened to Sandra, Karen, their children, and so many others.