Originally published by The New York Times
I am an asylum seeker from Honduras and a mother of three children. For over a month my youngest daughter was separated from her father and me by the United States government. I still don’t know where she was during that time or who took care of her.
She’s a toddler, so she can’t tell me if something bad happened to her. I don’t know if she thinks we chose to abandon her. All I know is she came back pounds thinner, with lice and a hacking cough, and she cried for days, traumatized by a government that keeps children from their parents because they are migrants.
We fled Honduras to the United States because we feared for our lives. I grew up in the capital, Tegucigalpa. In the past few years, my neighborhood has become one of the deadliest in the city. We had had run-ins with the gangs in the past. On Oct. 18, gang members came to our house looking for my partner, Kevin.
They showed me their guns and told me, “If you don’t leave in 24 hours, you know what will happen to you.”
I knew what they were capable of. When my eldest daughter was 2 years old and I was pregnant with my son, their father was murdered and his body dismembered by gang members. Even after he was killed, we got death threats. We tried moving to another town until things cooled down, but the gangs found us there and extorted us.
The death threats started again after Kevin and I got together and our daughter Grethshell was born. People who are deported from the United States as he was are targeted by the gangs, because they are presumed to have money. With the new threats, I grabbed the little money we had, around $80, and filled the children’s backpacks with clothes for them and a doll for Grethshell, who was 15 months old. I picked up my son at school and we made our way to the bus station to meet Kevin.
We bought tickets to the closest town in Guatemala, and from there we took another bus to the southern Mexican border. In Mexico, out of money, we traveled on the freight train nicknamed “la Bestia,” the Beast.
While we waited for the train in Puebla, Mexican immigration agents showed up and beat people and threw them in vans. In the chaos, I grabbed my two older children and hid in the nearby bushes. Kevin, who was carrying Grethshell in a sling, took off in a different direction. That was the last time I saw them together.
During the journey, we had come up with a plan in case we were separated. My uncle lives in San Francisco and that’s where we would reunite. “We’ll find each other there,” Kevin said. “We’ll be safe there.”
We arrived at the border at Calexico, Calif., on Dec. 31. Despite appealing for help, I was turned away by the Border Patrol agents. Desperate to reunite our family, I found us a way across in the early morning hours of Jan. 1.
We were caught by agents after we crossed and taken to one of the detention centers known as “hieleras,” or iceboxes, because they are kept so cold. There I learned that Kevin was taken to the same detention center with Grethshell and she had been separated from her father. Two fellow migrant women told me that five agents held him down while they ripped her from his arms. Other migrant women were asked to watch her.
When I and my two other children were released on Jan. 2, my uncle confirmed what the women had told me. Kevin was charged with a felony for returning to the United States after having been deported. He was taken to jail, while our daughter was sent to a shelter for migrant children in San Antonio.
The family separation was not reported to the court on his charging documents. The charges against him were dropped, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement is still using those initial charges as an excuse to keep him detained indefinitely while he fights for asylum.
I was told I would be reunited with my daughter in a week, but first I needed to fill out paperwork. Then I was told to provide a credit card with up to a $4,000 credit line for her flight, an impossibility for me. Officials refused to say who was looking after her. Finally I got fed up and went to the press. Grethshell was finally put on a plane and brought to me after I threatened to go to the address I had for the shelter manager and get her myself.
When a social worker put my daughter in my arms on Jan. 30, she was inconsolable. My whole body shook as I held her and tried to soothe her, telling her that everything would be O.K. She was so sick I had to take her to the doctor the next day. For three weeks she resisted me, fearful, when I tried to hold her. She still cries out for her father at night.
I know I am not alone. There are around 311,000 immigrants who have requested asylum after escaping violence in their home countries like us. Our future is uncertain. My children and I were just evicted from the home we shared with six other people. I’m trying to survive as a single mother of three. I don’t know if we’ll be granted asylum or sent back to our deaths at the hands of the gangs.
When I asked to be let into this country because my family was in mortal danger, a Border Patrol agent told me I was weak. That it would be better if I went to Canada. “I don’t care if one of your kids dies,” he said. I wonder what that agent would have done if someone had threatened to murder his children. Wouldn’t he have risked everything to ensure their safety?
As the United States decides what kind of country it wants to be, Americans need to reckon with the humanitarian crisis the current administration has created and what these policies have done to families like ours who have come here seeking protection.