On Friday, July 20, Julia and Christina watched fifty undocumented parents who were detained with them in the GEO Group's immigrant detention facility in Aurora head out to Port Isabel, Texas, where they would finally see their children again. The federal deadline to reunify all eligible families who were separated at the border was approaching.
But Julia and Christina, two mothers from Guatemala who were separated from their kids at the U.S./Mexico border for over two months, had to wait to see their children.
The two women, who spoke to Westword on the condition of anonymity, weren’t going to Texas because their kids had already been released and were living with family members in Florida and Tennessee.
“Because their children had been previously released, their children were deemed to have been reunited,” says Astrid Lockwood, Julia and Christina’s lawyer. Lockwood, an attorney with the Federal Practice Group based in Washington, D.C., is representing twenty clients who were detained in GEO.
A mother and an immigrant from Mexico herself, Lockwood took up the case of a mom who had been separated from her child in June and ended up reunifying them. It was only the seventh such reunification to happen in the U.S. at that point. Word got around, and other detainees began begging her for help.
“After a while it just became personal,” Lockwood says. “I had this ability to be able to help them, and I’ve been able to build successful cases now for revery single client that I’ve represented."
It took special effort to get Julia and Christina out of GEO. Because of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s ruling that domestic violence and gang violence are not grounds to seek asylum, their fears of returning to Guatemala were found “not credible” in their preliminary hearings. In a near-unprecedented effort, Lockwood was able to get those rulings overturned so that Casa de Paz, a Denver nonprofit that takes in immigrants released from GEO, could post bond for them.
On Wednesday, August 1, a Casa De Paz volunteer posted bond at GEO, and another volunteer picked up Julia and Christina from the detention center that evening. Casa de Paz is paying for bond and travel expenses for all separated parents released from GEO. Sarah Jackson, Casa de Paz’s founder, recently traveled to Port Isabel to make sure the fifty parents who were sent there were actually reunified with their children.
At Casa de Paz, Julia and Christina were greeted by a host of volunteers, a warm meal, and the chance to pick up a change of clothes and travel necessities. These are their stories, as they recounted them in Spanish.
Christina, 33, fled Guatemala this spring with her two children, a ten-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy.
Christina was raised in a small village, where her first language was an indigenous dialect, not Spanish. When she was eighteen, her father got her a job as a seamstress in a factory in Guatemala City. At 23, she met her husband in the crowded apartment building where she was living, and four years ago, he fled Guatemala for the U.S. The plan was for him to get a job and get settled, and then Christina and their kids would join him.
But their timeline changed after Christina says she was arbitrarily targeted by gang members, who demanded money and threatened her kids. Fearing for their lives, Christina and her children fled to join her husband in America earlier than expected. Christina took her young children through Mexico, sometimes sleeping outside in the cold and rain and often going hungry.
The three were caught crossing the border in late May and were immediately detained in an immigration center in Yuma, Arizona. By that time, family separation was in full effect.
Border Patrol officials told her that she could voluntarily leave the U.S. — an option that University of Denver immigration law professor César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández says is commonly presented to migrants. The officials explained that if she wanted to go through immigration proceedings in the United States, she’d have to be separated from her kids. Her kids cried, saying they’d rather go back to Guatemala. Christina told them they couldn’t — they’d be killed there.
Christina says the officials were not sympathetic to her or other parents in her situation. “They would say, ‘Tell your kids to be quiet. Why are they crying? Why can’t they be calm?’ And I would say, ‘Because they don’t want to be separated from me.’ My kids would say, ‘I don’t want to be apart from you. You’re my life.’”
Two days after Christina arrived in the U.S., officials separated her kids from her. Christina says she didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
Julia, 38, fled Guatemala with her two children, a sixteen-year-old-daughter and a fourteen-year-old-son.
She raised her kids alone. Their father refused to help her financially, and she could not find work in Guatemala’s struggling economy. They often went hungry, but she and her kids were “together all the time,” sleeping in the same bed every night. Julia made the journey to the U.S. border with dreams of being able to provide for her kids — to give them food, safety and the opportunity to attend school.
“When we crossed, we thought that here we were going to find peace,” Julia says. “My younger son told me, ‘Mami, we’ve made it.’ We were so happy. I said to my son, 'We’ve crossed the wall.' We didn’t know how much suffering was awaiting us.”
Julia was also apprehended by Border Patrol and taken to Yuma. Her kids were also taken from her, and they later found their way to Julia’s sister in Florida.
Christina and Julia both agreed that the detention center in Yuma had the worst conditions. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against Arizona border detention centers in 2015, claiming that photographic evidence showed migrants being held in dirty and crowded cells. Julia was kept at Yuma for eighteen days, Christina for sixteen.
In the detention center in Yuma, Christina says, detainees were given nothing but soup to eat three times per day. She would ask the guards for cookies or juice, and they would refuse, saying those things were for kids. They were given what Christina calls “oven paper” — probably what Border Patrol calls a “space blanket” — to cover themselves as they slept on the cold ground. Julia says she was never allowed to bathe or brush her teeth.
Christina says agents repeatedly chastised her for coming to the United States: “They would say we didn’t have to come here and ask us why we didn’t go to some other country."
Lockwood says she has heard similar stories from the parents she is representing.
“All of them have told me that at some point or another they were told [they were] never going to see their children again," Lockwood explains. "When they started crying, [detention center guards] then mocked them for crying.”
Julia and Christina didn’t meet each other in Yuma, but they wound up being shuffled through various detention centers throughout the Southwest together.
“Transfers across one ICE facility to another are very common. That’s been happening since very many years before Trump; that part is not at all unusual,” García Hernández, the DU professor, says. “The typical response that you’ll get is that it’s about safe capacity in the facilities.”
Julia and Christina were bused to another detention facility in Florence, Arizona, for one night, then to another in Santa Cruz, California, for two days. There, they were strip-searched and left with nothing but a plaid over-shirt. Then they were taken back to Florence before eventually joining a group of 42 detainees that was flown from Florence to Aurora. Before boarding, they were handcuffed and and shackled to each other.
Julia says that part was the most difficult. “It was as though they had seen us commit what they knew was a crime. I felt like I’d died.”
While they walked to the plane, Julia was told that if she stepped out of line, she would be put on another plane back to Guatemala.
“It reminded us of Jesus, when he was crucified,” Christina says. “It hurts to remember that it happened.” That was also Christina’s first time on a plane.
Both Christina and Julia say that the GEO facility had the best conditions of any detention center they experienced, even though the facility has been subject to a class-action lawsuit alleging mental-health abuses. Lockwood says that when she asked her clients how they were being treated at GEO, they told her the officials were giving them food and not calling them names.
"The standard is so low for them that the fact they’re being given edible food is enough,” Lockwood says.
Julia and Christina were both glad to get a decent meal and a bed, and to finally get the chance to speak to their children on the phone. The detainees were allowed five minutes, but Christina was only able to pay for one.
“For 25 days I didn’t have any communication with them," she says. "I didn’t know anything about how they were.”
But then she got a call from a social worker. Her daughter had memorized Christina’s husband’s phone number, and he had arranged to get the kids out of detention and pick them up. Christina only had to say yes.
“When I heard the voice of my daughter, she said, ‘Mamita, I need you,’” Christina says. “‘I’m a kid and I need you at my side. I want to be with you...you’re my mom, you’re my friend, you’re going to be my friend forever.”
Julia was overjoyed to talk to her children, but it also brought up sorrow and guilt.
“It hurt so much to feel that I had failed my children, that it was my fault that they were suffering,” she says. “On the phone I asked them to forgive me. Because I did not imagine that this was going to happen.”
At Casa de Paz on the first day of August, Julia and Christina could finally breathe a deep sigh of relief. Most of the volunteers the night they visited — many of whom had been motivated by family separation to work with Casa de Paz — didn't speak Spanish. But Julia and Christina kept expressing their gratitude for finally being among people who wanted to welcome them to a new country.
As they prepared dinner, volunteers asked if they wanted to fly out to see their kids that night or the next. Julia put a hand on her heart. Her eyes welled up at the thought of seeing their kids again so soon. “Tonight,” they both said.
They picked out new clothes from Casa de Paz’s donations, stuffing the large plastic garbage bags holding their possessions into brand-new backpacks. Christina pulled out a worn Bible.
“We prayed day and night," she said. "[In GEO] they gave us a Bible. It was so beautiful. It made us come together.”
The separated parents, Christina told volunteers at Casa de Paz, would sing and pray together, and tell each other their stories, though some of the guards didn’t like the noise. Christina flipped the Bible open to her favorite passage, Psalm 91. “I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Julia says she talked to God constantly. “Day and night. And he listened to me and he strengthened me, because there in Yuma, he told me I was going to get out.”
While picking out new clothes and clothes for her kids, Julia collapsed, sobbing. She couldn’t believe it: “Today is that day," she said.
Asked to verify the conditions that Julia and Christina described, a spokesman from Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent the following statement: “ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care. The agency is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.” The spokesman wrote that ICE ensures sufficient nutrition and adheres to all federal requirements for safety and well-being.
But Lockwood says that she has heard the same stories of trauma and maltreatment from every client. It’s unlikely, she says, that they are making this up. “These are women that have no education that come from incredibly rural parts of the world,” she says.
“As an immigration attorney I’ve come across wonderful Border Patrol and ICE officers and really bad ones,” Lockwood continues. “I’ve always thought they were just bad apples. But I think this policy allowed them to act with impunity.”
None of the mothers Lockwood is representing are being federally prosecuted for illegally entry — the threat behind the “zero tolerance" policy that caused family separation in the first place. Yet, she says, “every single one had been separated from their children. ... It was the pretense used to separate them, but they were never actually prosecuted.”
Julia and Christina both took red-eye flights from Denver to their final destinations. Westword was able to call Christina’s husband and confirm that she had been reunited with her kids. Lockwood confirmed that Julia had also safely reached her destination.
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Their struggle, however, is far from over. Both Christina and Julia are going through the long and difficult process of applying for asylum. According to Lockwood, it will take a minimum of four to five years, and it will be an uphill battle.
Immigration attorneys have filed a status report urging ICE to publicize data about the reunification process and its plans for reuniting families. As of Thursday, July 26, there were 431 children in U.S. Health and Human Services custody whose parents had already been deported, and forty children whose parents’ identity and location had not been determined. Nearly 210 parents have “waived reunification," but, the report says, “many of these parents did not realize they were signing away their right to get their children back. Indeed, many do wish to be reunited.”
And there are three mothers still waiting in GEO, whose bond hearings are pending. Lockwood is their attorney.
"I didn’t want to think back on this time and know that I could have done something and I didn’t," Lockwood says. "For now it fuels me to keep going and make sure all the moms are finally with their kids."