By Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times
McALLEN, Texas — The words appear on a scrap of paper, scrawled in pencil by an immigrant mother held at a detention center: “We beg you to help us, return our children. Our children are very desperate. My son asks me to get him out and I’m powerless here.”
In another letter, childish print on notebook paper, a mother spoke of her son: “It’s been a month since they snatched him away and there are moments when I can’t go on. … If they are going to deport me, let them do it — but with my child. Without him, I am not going to leave here.”
At least 2,053 children were separated from their parents because of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Officials have said they reunited 538 of those children, but didn’t intend to reunite them with parents who were detained. In more than a dozen letters collected by volunteers, detained mothers separated from their children shared their despair, pleaded to be released and sent messages of love to their children.
Trump issued an executive order last month to end the practice of separating families, but when and how the government will reunite them is unclear.
On June 26, a federal judge in California ordered officials to return small children to their parents in two weeks, others within a month, but Justice Department lawyers said Friday they need more time and planned to detain families longer.
Families were initially separated at a Border Patrol processing center in the Texas border city of McAllen into chain-link fence cells, which the mothers called “dog kennels.”
Reporters were recently given guided tours of the center, but forbidden from interviewing or photographing detainees. Some detention centers do not allow reporters to visit detainees, who must pay for phone calls.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times asked volunteers and attorneys visiting detained immigrant parents in Texas to convey written questions. More than a dozen mothers at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, 30 miles north of Austin, responded. Volunteers from the local nonprofit Grassroots Leadership shared their letters with The Times, identifying the women by first name because some of their asylum claims are still pending.
The mothers left various countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Their letters provide a glimpse of why they came to the U.S., how they were separated from their children and what they hope will happen now.
Attorney General Sessions has directed Justice Department lawyers to reject asylum claims based on fears of domestic and gang violence, the two main reasons many of the mothers fled Central America. One asylum seeker asked how the U.S. could enforce such a policy.
“Is it that the president doesn’t have any children so he can ignore the pain he is causing us?” a mother of two wrote, adding that she ran away from her country “because they threatened to kill me and my children … but here they killed us alive by taking away our children.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have said parents were separated from their children when they were charged with illegal entry and taken to federal criminal court, a new practice under the zero tolerance policy.
In their letters, detained mothers described the separations as painful, especially for their children.
“He screamed, begging them to please not separate us. He hugged me, crying. He asked me not to let them separate him from me,” wrote Lesvia, recalling how her son tried to kiss her between the bars of his cell until an official made him sit down.
Officials said parents were given forms in Spanish explaining the separation process. But in several letters, mothers said they were told little or nothing about the process. Some mothers describe being reassured as they headed to court that they would see their children again, only to return and find them gone.
A mother who asked not to be named wrote that she and her 15-year-old son were detained separately and that she was told to board a bus to another detention center.
“I asked about my son and they wouldn’t respond. I insisted on knowing and they told me, ‘Ma’am, your son is not here, he is far away and you’re being deported to your country.’”
She said that’s when she started to cry and “pleaded with them to let me stay with my son.”
“The official told me, ‘Don’t make me use a Taser gun on you,’” she wrote.
Friends later told her that’s when she fainted. At the time she wrote the letter, she had not heard from her son in 23 days.
Miriam, a single mother, said she was separated from her 10-year-old son, Kennet, on June 3 after the she came to the U.S. seeking asylum from gang threats and sexual harassment in El Salvador.
“I didn’t know about the new law separating children and mothers,” she wrote, adding that her asylum claim was initially rejected and she was not allowed to call her son for 14 days. When she and her son finally spoke, Miriam wrote, he had a fever and a sore throat and “from the beginning of the call to the end of the call he could not stop crying, begging me to please get him out of that place and bring him to be with me.”
Federal officials have said that immigrant parents separated from their children have been in touch with them by phone. But many of the mothers echoed Miriam’s comments, writing that they had not talked to their children for weeks, didn’t know where they were and worried about their safety. Some mothers said guards told them they would never see their children again.
“They said after June 4, which was my court hearing, I would be able to see him, but that wasn’t true,” a mother named Antonia wrote.
When Antonia was allowed to call her 12-year-old son June 20, she wrote, “He was begging me to get him out of that place. He was crying and it made me feel helpless, not being able to do anything from inside here to get my son back.”
Sandra wrote that when she was separated from her 12-year-old son on June 1, she was told she would see him again “in a matter of hours.”
“It was all a lie,” she wrote in a letter dated June 28. “From that day to this, they have not told me if they will give him to me or what will happen.”
Yasmin said she also wasn’t told she would be separated from her two daughters, ages 12 and 13, after they were detained May 22, according to her letter.
“They told me it was temporary and that I would later be reunited with them, but it wasn’t like that,” she wrote.
Days passed, and as she and other mothers despaired, Yasmin wrote that their guards laughed.
“Around me were many mothers crying for their children. Several would often faint because what they would hear is that we would be deported and they weren’t going to return our children, they would stay behind,” she wrote of the guards. “For seven days I didn’t know anything about my children because they wouldn’t give any information about them, not to any mother.”
Some detained parents told lawyers last week that they have been pressured by immigration officials to abandon their asylum claims if they want to see their children. Others have already been deported without their children, lawyers said. The American Civil Liberties Union, Texas Civil Rights Project and other legal advocacy groups have objected, saying the government is interfering with the immigrants’ right to due process.
Over the weekend, mothers at Hutto — many of whom have applied for asylum — told volunteers from Grassroots Leadership that they had been notified by immigration officials to prepare for transfer to a temporary detention center at Fort Bliss Army post outside El Paso for reunification with their children and deportation.
Despite concerns about the possibility of being deported, in their notes to their children, the mothers tried to stay positive.
“I miss you a lot, I love you and we will be together soon,” Noyma wrote to her son. “I don’t want you to be sad.”
“Every day I pray to God that we will be together again, and we will never be separated again because you are the most beautiful thing God has given me,” Miriam wrote.
“I love you despite living this nightmare. … I’m not going to give up until I have you in my arms,” Lesvia wrote.
“When we’re together again, I will spoil you like always. I will cook your meals and we will go on walks and I’ll lie next to you until you fall asleep,” Claudia wrote to her 7-year-old son, Kevin. “I love you, my prince. I hope to God and the Virgin Mary, my child, that we will soon be together and we’ll never be separated again. I love you baby, sending you kisses.”