The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Get your son ready, because we are taking him.’ Parents describe being separated from their children at the border.

Mario, Miriam and Christian, all Central Americans who attempted to cross the border into the United States, recount their separation from their children at the border during a news conference Monday at the Annunciation House in El Paso. Thirty two parents waiting to be reconnected with their children have been released to the Annunciation House. (Matt York/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

EL PASO — Miriam hasn’t seen her 5-year-old son since June 16, when she was arrested for crossing the border illegally and border agents took the boy away. She tried to call him Monday at the New York shelter where he’s staying, but she could only talk to his social worker.

“He is a little boy,” she said, her voice breaking. “I asked to talk to him but he is mad with me. He didn’t want to talk to me because he thinks I have abandoned him.”

Miriam, of Guatemala, was among a group of five parents at the Casa Vides migrants' shelter here who spoke about being separated from their children at the border, something they described as heartbreaking and terrifying. Thirty-two Central American parents were taken here Sunday after misdemeanor immigration charges against them were dropped and they were freed while their immigration cases move forward. Officials at Annunciation House, the El Paso nonprofit that runs Casa Vides, said the five parents agreed to speak publicly, but asked only that their first names be used because they fear retribution as they try to reunite with their children.

Miriam and her son were apprehended in El Paso on June 15, and the boy was taken from her in the early morning hours of June 16.

Separated immigrant children are all over the U.S. now, far from parents who don’t know where they are

“He said to me, the immigration person, ‘Get your son ready because we are taking him,'" Miriam said through a translator, noting that she asked the immigration official where the boy would be taken and that she was told only that he would end up at a shelter. “He was asleep when I brought him to the truck. … I never thought they were going to take my son away. I thought they were going to keep us together wherever they would send us.”

She said she is “very sad” and hasn’t been able to sleep much since they were separated: “I miss him so very much. Before going to sleep he would tell me, 'I love you very much, Mami.’ I miss him very much.”

Annunciation House officials said all 32 parents released Sunday are free on their own recognizance while their immigration cases are pending. Most are expected to join family elsewhere in the United States while their deportation and asylum cases are adjudicated. The 32 parents — 18 men and 14 women — have a total of 34 children who had been separated from them.

Taylor Levy, Annunciation House’s legal coordinator, said most of the parents had not spoken to their children before being brought to the shelter, though some knew through other family members where their children were being held. The average age of the separated children is 10; the youngest child is 5. Most of the parents are from Honduras, with others from Guatemala and El Salvador. The parents had been detained for an average of 25 days, and the longest detention and separation was a father who hadn’t seen his 5-year-old daughter in 40 days.

Annunciation House Executive Director Ruben Garcia said some of the parents were told on the bus taking them to Casa Vides on Sunday that they would be reunited with their children at the migrant shelter. A Customs and Border Protection spokesman said none of the agents on the bus had access to information about where the children were being held.

Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia and her 7-year-old son, Darwin, were reunited June 22, more than one month after being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Garcia challenged the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has custody of the separated children, to move promptly to reunite them with their parents. He said the parents aren’t being provided much information about their children and have borne the burden of tracking them down.

“Their children have been taken from them and now they are … being told to go over hoops and hurdles to get their children back,” Garcia said, adding that he believes when the U.S. government takes away a child from a refugee and the refugee is released, it is the government’s burden to reunite them. “ORR should be tripping over itself to find these parents and say, ‘We’re on a plane with your daughter, we’re on a plane with your son, and we will be in El Paso, Texas, within 24 hours.’”

Miriam said the policy of separating children from their families at the border — which has been rescinded since her crossing — has created an excruciating situation that, for her, is indefinite.

“It is very sad to separate us from our children,” she said. “They don’t feel the pain that a parent feels. You have to be a parent to know the pain to lose a child.”