One of my earliest childhood memories is of being torn away from my mother. I was four years old and she was leaving Haiti for the United States to join my father, who’d emigrated two years earlier, to escape both a dictatorship and poverty. My mother was entrusting my younger brother and me to the care of my uncle and his wife, who would look after us until our parents could establish permanent residency—they had both travelled on tourist visas—in the United States.
On the day my mother left, I wrapped my arms around her legs before she headed for the plane. She leaned down and tearfully unballed my fists so that my uncle could peel me off her. As my brother dropped to the floor, bawling, my mother hurried away, her tear-soaked face buried in her hands. She couldn’t bear to look back. We would not see her again for three years.
Some may assume that certain immigrant parents, because they leave their children behind, or send them alone on possibly perilous journeys, don’t love their children as much as, say, parents whose parental love is never tested in this way. When I was a teen-ager, I asked my parents about their immigration choices. If the lives of my brother and me had been in danger, or if they’d had no one to leave us with, they certainly would have taken us with them, they said. Though they would have never been granted visas if they hadn’t left us behind to prove that they had a reason to return.
Even the type of carefully planned separation that my parents chose tore their hearts out. Whenever they were eating, my mother used to say, they wondered whether my brother and I were eating, too. When they went to bed at night, they wondered if my brother and I were sleeping. Even though we spoke to them on a scheduled call once a week, they never stopped worrying and longing for us.
It is perhaps that ache and longing that made my parents take me to visit Haitian refugees and asylum seekers who were being held at a detention center near the Brooklyn Navy Yard when our family was reunited in New York, in the early nineteen-eighties. Back then, Rudolph Giuliani was the Associate Attorney General of the United States and the most vocal opponent of parole for twenty-one hundred Haitian refugees being held at different detention facilities around the U.S. After travelling to Haiti and speaking to Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, the dictator whom these migrants had fled, Giuliani concluded that the Haitians had nothing to fear and should be deported.
I’ve continued to visit detention facilities over the years, including ones where children are held, either alone or with their parents. It is not easy to enter such places. At many facilities, one can get only a curated view, either alongside a group of journalists or by attaching oneself to a congressional delegation. At a children’s facility in Cutler Bay, Florida, which I used to visit with a registered volunteer, most boys and girls were waiting to be reunited with a parent or relative already living in the United States. Many of these young people had experienced such horrible trauma during their long journey from Central America to the U.S. border with Mexico that they could barely focus on the activities the volunteers prepared for them, which included gardening and crafts. Some had been detained for so long that they’d transitioned from childhood to adolescence behind those walls. Then there were the Miami hotels turned detention centers that immigration lawyers and advocate friends would allow me to accompany them to, places where women and children were being held for weeks or months at a time. Up to six women spent twenty-four hours a day in one room, often with crying babies and toddlers, while armed guards patrolled the halls.
One of the most distressing aspects of immigration detention, for both adults and children, is how invisible the detained can become, even when they’re imprisoned in our proverbial back yards. Had the world not seen the images of children wrapped in Mylar blankets and sleeping inside cages, and heard babies and toddlers crying for their parents, both as a result of the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, some might not have believed that these children had been yanked from their parents’ arms—one, reportedly, while being breast-fed. Even in the light of clear and horrifying evidence, many would rather hold fast to their willful denial, branding the cages sets, the detained children actors, and the detention facilities the equivalent of boarding schools and summer camps.
In May, an A.C.L.U. report produced from thirty thousand pages of official documents, dated between 2009 and 2014, detailed incidents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers verbally, physically, and sexually abusing migrant children. The cases cited include accounts of children being Tased, punched, kicked in the head and ribs. Young migrants complained of being denied food and water and medical care, of being strip-searched and threatened with rape and murder while confined to freezing and unsanitary rooms. Teen-agers detained at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, in Virginia, testified in court filings that they were handcuffed to chairs with bags over their heads and were left naked in cold concrete cells. Others, detained elsewhere, have reported being thrown on the ground in order to be force-fed or injected with psychotropic drugs. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has either dismissed or denied these charges.
This is what may await many of the children who have already been separated from their parents under the current Administration’s zero-tolerance policy. (The Department of Homeland Security has said that, out of the twenty-three hundred separated children, five hundred and twenty-two have been reunited with their parents.) The executive order that Trump passed last week to end family separation makes no provisions for the children who are still separated from their parents.
Some of these children have already arrived in Florida, where I live. Last Saturday, a social-worker friend and I drove around the fenced perimeters of one of those facilities, the His House Children’s Home, in Miami Gardens, which, according to the Miami Herald, is currently housing ten children ranging from “newborns to 5 year olds.” Made up of a series of yellow and beige buildings, some of which are boarded up, His House Children’s Home has been linked to the death of at least one child, who suffocated under a blanket, in 2007. His House has also been accused, by some of the U.S.-born children who have been placed in foster care there, of treating them like prisoners. His House staff has denied that children are mistreated there. My friend works in the state foster system, and said that places like His House are a last resort for the children in her care. “Here we are trying to do all we can to keep children with their parents, and our country is separating other children from theirs,” she said.
Jennifer Anzardo Valdes, the program director of the Children’s Legal Program at the Florida-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, has represented unaccompanied minors in the foster-care system and also those in immigration detention. Her team is now representing some of the children who have been taken from their parents at the border. Valdes and her team were aware of families being separated months before the zero-tolerance policy was officially announced, by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in April. One of their clients, Ana, a three-year-old girl from Guatemala, was separated from her father in July, 2017. Ana’s father came to the U.S. with her; her mother, who stayed behind, died shortly afterward. They were held together in a crowded facility for two days. Then Ana’s father was told that she was going to be looked after elsewhere. Nobody told him where she was being taken. He was told that they would return her to him when he was released. Before he was deported, in early December, 2017, he asked if he could take her with him. He has not seen her since.
Ana was released into the custody of relatives in South Florida this past January. If not for Valdes and her team, and other immigration lawyers like them, many migrant children, like Ana, would have to find their ways through the immigration system alone. Valdes uses a coloring book, designed by her organization and illustrated by a local artist, to help small children like Ana make sense of the immigration process. One illustration in their “Conozca sus Derechos” (“Know Your Rights”) brochure shows a smiling family of four holding hands. Another page shows a map of the United States, to help the children identify where they are. Another shows a Santa Claus-like judge with the words “La Corte” (“The Court”) printed above his head. “I’m sure you can imagine the challenges we have trying to explain the court process to a three-year-old,” Valdes said.
It’s worth remembering that the Trump Administration has been finding ways to divide families from the very beginning. The so-called Muslim ban kept U.S citizens and others from being reunited with their spouses and children from five Muslim-majority countries. The dismantling of the Obama-era executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or daca, has left eight hundred thousand Dreamers, some of them heads of households, in personal and financial limbo. The revocation of Temporary Protected Status for Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador—some of the very places from which the current waves of migrants at the border are fleeing—could lead to the deportation of more than three hundred thousand men and women, including some who have U.S.-born children, whom they may have no choice but to leave behind.
When vulnerable populations are kept hidden, or are forced into hiding—which is the daily reality of so many of the undocumented in Trump’s America—they not only live in the shadows; they become slowly erased. At the moment, everyone seems to be paying attention. But these families and children, and others who find themselves in the crosshairs of this Administration’s draconian immigration policies, will still need us to keep paying attention, even when the media coverage wanes and we are no longer seeing photographs of children in cages, or hearing recordings of their pleas and cries.
Read it in The New Yorker here.