Even though President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending mandatory family separation at the U.S. southern border, parents of children being held in centers across the Southwest are themselves in detention centers, including the Aurora facility run by the private prison company GEO Group, anxiously waiting for instructions on how to reunite with their children.
One mother from Guatemala, whose seven-year-old daughter was taken from her in April, was just released on Tuesday, June 19, from the Aurora facility after she paid a $1,500 bond. She agreed to share her story on condition we provide a pseudonym — "Maria" — to protect her identity as she awaits trial in immigration court. On Tuesday, Maria promptly took refuge at a local nonprofit that shelters and supports released detainees and their visiting family members, Casa de Paz, which Westword profiled in a 2016 cover story, “The House That Peace Built.” There, Maria told the nonprofit's founder, Sarah Jackson, her story of what happened to her and her daughter under the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” policy that's been in place since April 6 — and is still technically in place, even after the June 20 executive order ending family separations.
Maria has already left Colorado on a flight to New England to stay with a family friend, but Westword spoke with Jackson to hear an inside account of Trump's immigration policies. One thing is clear: Trump's new executive order may end family separation, but the mess the policy has caused during the past two months is far from cleared up. And other aspects of zero tolerance, including a mandate to prosecute everyone who crosses the border, as well as new directives to disregard domestic violence and fear of gang violence as reasons to seek asylum, are still in effect.
Westword: I'm sure a lot of Coloradans aren't aware that parents who've been affected by the family separation practice are being held in detention right here in the Centennial State. What can you tell us about Maria, the woman you hosted, and her story?
Sarah Jackson: Maria is from Guatemala and was in a really bad situation. She escaped her husband, who tried to kill her. And the reason her husband tried to kill her is because, when she was sixteen, Maria was kidnapped and raped for three months straight by a man in his forties who had HIV. So now she has HIV. And later, when she married her husband, he knew that she had HIV and was okay with it. No one else in the little village they lived in knew about it. But then somehow word got out. And the husband was getting a lot of embarrassing ridicule and shame for having a wife with HIV. And so people in this village started harassing him, and he decided that the best way to get rid of this problem was by killing Maria. That's when he tried to kill her.
That's striking, because now, under the zero tolerance policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has dictated that people are no longer covered in asylum claims for domestic violence. So the very situation that Maria was trying to flee is no longer protected. Did Maria and her daughter cross into the United States after the April 6 zero-tolerance policy went into effect?
Yes, they did. And they did so asking for asylum. It took Maria and her seven-year-old daughter three weeks to get from Guatemala to the U.S. border, and along the way, everything was stolen from them, including Maria's phone and her clothes. She said that when she got to the border in Arizona, [law enforcement] took her jacket and took her kid's jacket and threw them on the ground and said, "You can't have these." Her daughter was sick at the time with a lung infection, and so she needed something to stay warm. Keep in mind they call these detention centers "ICE boxes" for a reason: It's that they keep them so cold.
Maria's daughter was then taken away right in front of her. Maria was taken from Yuma, Arizona, to Eloy Detention Center [in Eloy, Arizona], and from there she was transferred via plane to the Aurora detention center, where she was for almost two months. Her daughter was sent to a detention center in Texas. And it sounds like she was only able to speak to her daughter once or twice. She told us that her daughter had been hit in the face by another kid and had a huge bruise on her face. Just to see Maria tell me this story and know that she couldn't be there with her daughter to comfort her while she was in pain was horrible.
She told me, “I need my daughter by my side.” She can't think. She has hardly eaten during the past couple of months. Maria hasn't been able to hold her HIV medicine down because she's been racked with anxiety and stress of not knowing what's happening with her daughter. She's been trying to contact officials at the center where her daughter is, and she just wants go there and see her. Every answer she's received is no, no, no. So now Maria has to play this waiting game.
She personally knows another mom who crossed with her from Guatemala who had her child with her, and this mother ended up getting deported back to Guatemala, and the child was not deported back with her. So it's now been two months, and the mother keeps calling every day to see, “When is my child coming? When are you deporting my kid so that I can be with them?” And it's just silence. There's no system to figure out where they are. It's not a pretty sight.
Did Maria talk about that at all? She apparently knows where her daughter is, but it sounds like other parents that she's been in detention with don't know where their children are.
We're hearing that parents are allowed one free phone call to figure out where their child is. Typically with that one free phone call, it's impossible to figure out where their kids are. Then, afterward, if they don't have any money, they can't make more calls.
So does that mean parents have to guess what detention center their kid is being held in? As in, maybe they luck out with their one free phone call, or if they choose the wrong center, tough luck?
What we do know is that there's no centralized system that was put into place before thousands of kids were put into detention centers. So it's certainly not as easy as calling one main number, giving your child's name and date of birth and country and then finding out where they are. There's not that central point of contact. It's just a cluster....
Has Casa de Paz hosted anyone else besides Maria who's been separated from their children since the April 6 directive?
No. But we have sent a dozen money orders to parents we know who are in detention in Aurora and are trying to find their kids. So that's the way we've stayed connected — getting names from the [legal] nonprofit Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network — and giving them money. That's how we've stayed connected to the issue until we had Maria stay with us yesterday.
But as upset as she was, there was a tender moment when she picked out clothes we had for her daughter. And she asked if we had a jacket, since her daughter's was taken away. We didn't have jackets, but I knew we had some backpacks so I went to the garage and found a pile of backpacks that had been donated by the community. And on the top was a Frozen backpack — the Disney movie — and so I picked that, and you should have seen the way that Maria's eyes lit up. Apparently her daughter loves Frozen. For Maria, it became this physical reminder that she's going to see her kid again and she's going to give her this backpack, and she was so happy to have this moment to keep her hope alive.
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How is Maria doing now?
She left last night to go to her friend's place in New England. When she got to the house yesterday, you could tell that the only thing on her mind was getting to her friend's place, because I think she knows that once she's there, she can have extra support and try to figure out how to get her kid back. She ended up getting a plane ticket out at 11 p.m. last night.
I did tell Maria that if she did find out she can visit her daughter, or if her daughter gets out and she needs a plane ticket to New England, the last thing she should worry about is [transportation costs]. I told Maria that we'll buy that plane ticket for her to get to Texas or for her daughter to get to the Northeast. On Friday, July 13, we're doing a fundraiser at Cerveceria Colorado, a new brewery that serves craft Mexican beer, to raise bond money for parents in detention centers trying to get out. It will also cover Maria's $1,500 bond she had to pay to get out, as well as any plane tickets.
Update: We have further protected the identity of "Maria" at her request for the purposes of her upcoming immigration case.