Tahirih Houston Immigration Staff Attorney, Lauren Fisher Flores, wrote this firsthand account after visiting the U.S. – Mexico border in December 2018.
I have a two-year-old smiley, clever, wiggly daughter. I see her, and I marvel that she was in my belly, that she is of me. I hold her and she fits back into me like a puzzle piece. Having a child and knowing what it feels like to be apart for a few hours or a few days, I can’t hold in my head or in my heart the pain our government is causing asylum-seeking families.
I went with my Tahirih colleagues to the U.S.-Mexico border to take affidavits from parents in federal court, hours after they were separated from their children.
Images of parents — shackled, confused, hurting — these are images that don’t leave me. I remember the mother who couldn’t breathe between her sobs to answer my questions. I remember the father who struggled with his shackles to wipe away his tears. These images are with me when I get home every night and feel the privilege of holding my own child, safe.
Last year, Tahirih was a link in a chain of advocates who worked to reunite a mother with her 8-year-old child after a month-long separation. Advocates on the border helped mom through the CFI and bond processes. Bond money donated from caring people across our country, people who are angered and confused about family separation, got mom out of jail. Mom stayed the night in a Catholic refugee home near the border. A big-hearted volunteer brought her up to our office Houston, and we took her to the children’s detention center to get her child.
On the trip to get her son, mom told us how border patrol in the “hielera” told her they were taking her son for 48 hours, just for the federal court hearing. Instead, after her court, she was sent to an immigration jail alone. There, with women who’d been apart from their children for months, she learned the truth. It was 2 weeks before she found out where her son was, before she spoke him on the phone. She told us stories of a mother in the next cell block with three children, one an infant. Her children were sent across the country and her breasts were swollen with milk.
Hundreds of mothers, she said, still separated from their children despite a pending federal court order to reunite.
She was one of the lucky ones, she passed her credible fear interview and a judge set bond. Lucky, as in she had suffered so much in her home country, and for the “right” reasons, so her fear of death was enough to give her the opportunity to fight an asylum case. She kept asking us how much further, how much longer.
We arrived to the children’s shelter, it was in a rural area and looked like a warehouse from the outside. Locked doors led us into a small conference room, where the little boy was waiting in a too-big office chair. He was small and thin for an 8-year-old. He looked confused and a little weary in his button-down, plaid shirt. He had a watch on each wrist, one from his home country, and the other bought with points gathered at the shelter for good behavior.
His mother saw him, and she ran to him. She hugged him, he put his head down, crown against her chest. The shelter employees brought out paperwork to sign. Mom held her child in her lap while they waited on the final steps. He fit into her like a puzzle piece.
On the trip from the children’s detention center to the women’s shelter where the family had a bed for the night, we made small talk. We chatted about when the school year starts, and how to enroll her child in school. We talked about the weather in Houston, and the weather in her country. The little boy told us how border patrol loaded them into vans and told them their moms would be waiting on the other end. He said that the little kids, the ones younger than him, cried when they saw their moms weren’t at the detention center. He told us he didn’t cry, he was brave. He said the food was good at the detention center. He said the shelter staff told him the better he behaved, the faster he would be with his mother again. He behaved very, very well, he told us.
We dropped the family off, wished them well, the little boy clinging to his mother’s side. I went home to hug my daughter.