The Long Shadow of Family Separation

Selmer, Tennessee where Ana and her family live. Photo by Skye Marthaler, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

This story was originally published in The Nation.

Ana brushes her hair in front of the mirror with a haunted look in her eyes.  Minutes pass; her hair is still wet.  She feels cold and realizes she was lost in her own thoughts again.  In a rush, she puts her hair in a ponytail and leaves her small bedroom. Her head is spinning.  I have to take the children to school, clean the house, go to the supermarket, worry about money… and lunch!  Will my husband find work today?

The pandemic hit Ana’s family hard.  Her husband, Isaí, goes weeks without picking up work.  Sometimes they have to borrow money and stretch supplies to cover household expenses.  God will provide, she likes to think.  They are healthy, and for now, that is enough.  She smiles, as she always does.  But it’s a smile that hides pain.

Ana lives with her husband and their two children in a mobile home in Selmer, a remote area of Tennessee about two hours from Memphis.  Cell phone coverage is poor, and there are no Hispanic supermarkets nearby.  Her trailer is small, but it has the feeling of home.  They don’t have a lot: two sofas and an armchair in the living room, a small dining room, a rug and curtains with flowers.  But the patio is large, and Isaí mows the grass regularly while Ana rolls handmade tortillas in the backyard over an open fire.  It’s different from her place in Guatemala.  It’s quieter, and it’s missing a lot of family.  It’s been almost three years since they left everything behind in their home country.

In June 2018, Isaí and Envil, their son, left Guatemala, crossed Mexico, and arrived at the Arizona border to seek asylum in the United States.

“We had to flee the country because of things that were happening there, violence.  We were being extorted,” Ana explains. “First my husband and my son came…. We were hopeful.  We did not expect what happened to them.”

Under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, migrants—including asylum seekers—who attempted to cross the border without authorization were detained and criminally prosecuted.  The policy, preceded by a 1997 court ruling, was intended to discourage unauthorized border crossings into the United States and reduce the burden of processing asylum claims.  Almost 3,000 minors were separated from their parents in less than two months; Isaí and Envil were part of that group.

Eloy Detention Center in Arizona. Photo by rawEarth is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Envil was 9 years old when he got to the border with his dad.  They were placed in a detention center in Arizona.  “It was cold, dirty, and packed.  I remember a lot of kids crying,” Envil says.  He was separated from his father.  Envil says the agents—he doesn’t know if they were from Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement—beat him.  Isaí remained in Arizona, and Envil ended up in a shelter in New York.  Ana was still in their hometown of Santa Rosa.

“They told me that I would never see [Envil] again, asked why I had brought him, told me that it was my fault,” Isaí recalls.  “I did not know how to tell [Ana] that they took our son from me, how to explain to her that I had lost him.”  Almost three years later, Isaí is crying, something he rarely did before the separation.  Remembering is painful.  Usually, they try to forget, to change the subject and move on.

“I remember the afternoon when I received a call, and they asked me if I was the mother of my son…. I was still in Guatemala, and I didn’t know what had happened,” Ana says.  “I answered yes, and they told me that they were calling on behalf of immigration.  They had my son, and he had been separated from my husband.  That news destroyed me.”

Isaí was not the only father separated from his child that day.  “The parents from whom the children had been taken cried together in the detention center—we hugged each other, asking God, on our knees, ‘My God, please, bring our children back,’” Isaí recalls.

After more than 40 days apart, Envil and Isaí were reunited in Arizona.  When the children arrived on buses, Isaí saw that they were dirty, with lice and pimples.  He noticed bruises.  The immigration guards told the children to point out who their parents were, saying they had to recognize them.  “The children were crying, and some of them said to their parents, ‘I don’t love you anymore.  Why did you leave me?’” Isaí says.  But Envil ran to him instantly.

“They told me that my dad didn’t love me, that he had abandoned me, that he would never come back,” Envil says.  Isaí noticed the difference in his firstborn immediately.  Before the separation, Envil was a curious, friendly child with an easy laugh.  Now, the little boy with brown skin and expressive eyes looked gray, thin, and haggard, as if something had escaped his body.  “He had a color that I don’t know how to explain, like the color of sadness,” Isaí remembers.  “But I told him, ‘Now you’re here, mijo. We’re together now.’”

They were released a couple of days later and moved to Tennessee, where Isaí’s uncle lived, to start over.  But just two weeks after they got to Selmer, the uncle was arrested for driving without a license and deported.  They were left on their own.

Within weeks, Ana and her 5-year-old daughter, Herlin, set out on the same journey.  They got to the Texas border a couple of weeks after a federal judge, in June 2018, ordered a halt to family separations under the zero tolerance policy.  Ana and Herlin applied for asylum and remained in the custody of immigration authorities for more than 20 days, though they were kept together the entire time.  At the end of the summer, they were able to join Isaí and Envil in Tennessee.

When Ana saw her son, she barely recognized him, she says.  For some time Envil sought out his parents, snuggled with them, and hugged his dad tightly, afraid they’d be separated again, as kept happening in his dreams.  Envil would tell them, “Hold me—I’m afraid to wake up and see that you are not here again.  Don’t leave me again, please.”

Ana’s husband wasn’t the same either.  Isaí cried regularly and apologized constantly.  They rarely talked about what had happened.  “The trauma is so profound that they lose affection and start hating us for what happened,” Isaí says.  “As parents, that is so difficult to accept.”

In many Latino families, it is considered impolite to talk about money, sex, or other difficult subjects at the dinner table.  Those topics are to be discussed in private, among adults.  But family separation is a reality that can’t be ignored.

Two years after the separation, 12-year-old Envil and 7-year-old Herlin are still afraid and angry.  “If only Trump could feel what it is like to be separated from someone you love so much,” Envil says.  “He needs to pay for what he did to me, to other children.”  Envil blames Donald Trump for the almost hypothermic nights in “the coolers,” the lice, the weight loss, the worms in his belly, the salty tears that dried night after night on his dusty cheeks.  He doesn’t forget or forgive his time in the custody of the U.S. government.

“I don’t think he will close this wound.  He has been strong, but this hurt him so much,” Isaí says.  “I tell him to put this trauma aside, and he tells me, ‘Daddy, I can’t.’  Neither can I.”

Envil’s adolescence arrived before his immigration court date.  He, who just two years earlier was still a child, is becoming a teen.  His voice is changing, and his features and eyes have hardened.  There are days when his parents don’t understand what is happening to him.  Sometimes he doesn’t even understand himself.

“He changed a lot.  I feel he is desperate at times.  I see him as angry and full of fear, very different,” Ana says.

She has changed too.  “After everything I went through, I’ve gotten sick often,” she says.  “Sometimes I have bad dreams. I relive the same thing, and I wake up and I try to convince myself that it is just a nightmare, that we are together and it won’t happen again.”

An immigrant detention facility in McAllen, TX. Photo by US Customs and Border Protection.

President Joe Biden has begun to reverse Trump’s family separation policy, which tore at least 5,500 children from their parents between July 2017 and June 2018. He has also announced a task force to reunite the hundreds of migrant children still separated from their parents.

“Trump administration policy was on enforcement and removal,” says Hugo Larios, an immigration attorney based in Arizona.  He believes that Biden is returning to “the traditional way of keeping families together.”  Larios hopes that the administration will adopt a policy, “if the children come by themselves, to locate a family member or someone in the United States so that child can go to a family member instead of being detained at an immigration detention center.”

But for hundreds of families, the separation crisis is not over.  “It’s one thing to say that you want to reunite all these kids,” says Julie Schwietert Collazo, cofounder of Immigrant Families Together, a foundation dedicated to reuniting and supporting families separated at the US-Mexico border.  “I think it’s another to really look squarely in the face of ‘What resources do you have to actually do that?’  You know, what documentation exists that will reconnect these parents [or] guardians with their children?”

And for families like Ana and Isaí’s, the harm to their mental and physical health still reverberates, though the federal government has done little to address it.  Ana and her daughter have not received psychological help after the trauma of crossing the border; Envil and his dad started sporadic sessions in December.  The family was referred to a specialist by an association that works with immigrants.  But they don’t know if therapy will help.  “The truth is that we are not very well aware how it works,” Ana explains.  She says she’s seen no progress in her family’s emotional healing.  “My child does not speak much.”

Ana and Isaí also have fears about their legal status.  While Envil and his little sister already have Social Security numbers, their parents do not have official identification or work permits.  Without documents, they are still vulnerable to being deported.  The federal government has not offered help.  “They tell us that we have to wait until our court date in 2023, because our lawyer told us it couldn’t be done before,” Ana says.

EOIR Immigration Court. Photo by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The immigration courts still have more than a million pending cases.  The Covid-19 pandemic has made it worse.  “The problem is that there are not enough judges to accommodate all these claims.  I mean, that’s why it takes forever,” says Larios, the immigration attorney.  According to him, we should expect asylum seekers to be allowed to apply for work permits after 150 days, as they did before the Trump administration.  “It doesn’t help anyone, even the US government…to not allow them to work if they’re already here anyway,” he says.  He also emphasizes the urgency of DACA reform with a path to citizenship, “so that DACA-eligible individuals can apply for actual legal permanent residency, if not…a full comprehensive reform in the next two years, before the midterm elections.”

Thus far, Biden has not included most of these provisions in his immigration plans.  Some advocates also demand financial restitution for the harms done.  Others just want these families to have the opportunity to live safely and legally in the United States.  “The priority is to really bring these cases before an immigration judge to resolve their asylum cases,” says Schwietert Collazo.

Ana and Isaí have to rely on the help of others to make ends meet.  Isaí works as a gardener and takes whatever gigs he can get, but he gets paid under the table.  He says that he tries to be a good, law-abiding citizen, but a mistake, no matter how small, could get him deported.

The family cannot imagine going back to Guatemala.  Despite the nervousness they feel when they see a police car or an ICE agent or hear Trump on television, they feel safe in the United States.  They have not forgotten Spanish, but they feel more comfortable speaking English.  The two siblings joke, talk, and fight in a language they did not know before stepping onto American soil.  They love their school, and their teachers tell Ana they are great students.

“We work hard to prove that we deserve to be here,” Isaí says.  But that is not enough to heal and thrive.

“We need to get asylum,” Ana says.

Ana still has mixed feelings about her family’s decision to come to the United States.  She and her husband talked with their children before leaving Guatemala.  They explained the situation—the violence and intimidation they were experiencing—and how leaving their homeland was the only option.  They dreamed together about what life would be like in the United States.  She still gets excited thinking about freedom and opportunity.  But then her thoughts turn to family separation, immigration uncertainty, a lack of job opportunities, and the challenges of being a migrant in the United States.

“I start to think about my children’s lives, what will become of them, how they will grow up, and immediately I get a headache,” Ana says.

Psychologist Enjolie Lafaurie, an expert on emotional stress and multicultural counseling, says that internal conflict is to be expected.  “These parents are making incredibly difficult individual decisions in a system that’s not supportive of them, that does not take their experience into account,” she says.  “It’s like making a decision with your arms tied behind your back and your feet shackled.”

“A lot of the families have said to us, ‘We wouldn’t have come here if we could have made a life for ourselves in our country of origin,’” says Schwietert Collazo.  “We need to understand the reasons that people came here.  They want to be your neighbors. They want to contribute here, and in many ways they’re already doing that.  They want to be safe.”

Ana knows that she needs help too.  She still cries when she remembers what happened: the family they left behind in Guatemala, the uncertainty of their future in the United States, the fear of being separated at one of their immigration check-ins.  But for Ana, there is no better therapist than God.  “He is so great that he has not abandoned us,” she says.  “He has put good people in our lives, who help us, even here, in this small town, where there are almost no Hispanic people.”  Faith is what has kept them together in times of uncertainty, especially when Trump was president.

“I get very worried because I know that we are in a country that may send us back,” Ana says, “and my children, they are already adapting to life here.”  To stay legally in the United States, they need asylum.  To keep going, they need faith.  To stay together, they need to forgive.  The United States has closed its doors to many, but some still got in.  Maybe a window will open, and they’ll find a way to come out of the shadows—to be free and no longer afraid.  Maybe.

Fi2W is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, the Listening Post Collective, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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