The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I crossed the border seeking safety. Instead, they took my daughter away.

Detainees at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Tex., in August. The author and her daughter crossed the border in June and are being held there.
Detainees at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Tex., in August. The author and her daughter crossed the border in June and are being held there. (Charles Reed/AP)

My 15-year-old daughter, Gloria, and I crossed the U.S. border on June 3 in Reynosa, Mexico, to seek asylum here. I had been getting death threats in El Salvador, and we fled in search of protection. We had been traveling for about a month. We had suffered hunger and thirst. My daughter had a fever for part of the journey. Sometimes we had to sleep in the street, and I would stay awake to keep watch so she could rest. We were willing to endure all this because we felt it was our best chance to save our lives.

U.S. immigration officials detained us and took us to a holding room in one of the notorious “hieleras,” or iceboxes, in a detention facility in McAllen, Tex. It was freezing; Gloria wrapped herself as tightly as she could in the aluminum-foil blanket they gave us. We had been there for only about half an hour before an officer came in and asked me to go with him for a moment to take my fingerprints. I told my daughter that I’d be back.

I was giving the officer my information when I heard them call Gloria’s name. I told the officer they had called my daughter. He was calm: “Ma’am, everything is fine.” My body started to tremble, and I began to cry. I continued to give him my information, but I did not feel okay anymore after I heard my daughter’s name. The officer told me, “Ma’am, you can go back to the room.” When I reached the cell, Gloria was gone.

No one had closed the door behind me yet, so I rushed back. “Where is my daughter?” I asked. “Calm down, ma’am, they took your daughter to another place nearby,” he said. He told me I would see her after court. It was a Sunday, and he told me that by the next day after court, we’d be reunited.

But my hearing wasn’t held Monday, and no one told me why. Instead, they sent me to the “dog pound,” a large room with indoor fencing. On Tuesday, I was taken to court, chained at the hands, feet and waist like a criminal. After my court appearance, I was hoping they’d let me see my daughter, but instead, they took me back to the dog pound. I asked the officer there about my daughter, and he looked in my file and told me, “Ma’am, your daughter isn’t here anymore.” I said that in court they’d given me a number to call for information about her, and I asked if he could let me call that number to find out where she was. He told me that he could not let me call because they did not allow calls.

Nations have separated parents from their children before. It never ends well.

I begged God not to abandon me. It was so difficult for me to sleep on such a cold floor without my daughter, but each night, God gave me strength. There were moments when I couldn’t be strong anymore — when I looked around, so many mothers were crying over the same situation I was going through. I would guess that about 45 other separated mothers were there.

After six days in the dog pound, they took me to a detention center in Laredo, Tex., for two weeks. The first thing I did there was ask to call the number they had given me in court, but the officials said they didn’t allow calls there, either, unless I had money for a phone card. My heart was destroyed from not knowing anything about my daughter. I asked the guards to find out where she was. Days passed, and I did not know anything about her. I kept asking the officers what was happening, but they wouldn’t give me answers.

After two weeks in Laredo, I was able to buy a phone card to call my sister using $5 I had earned from cleaning the detention center. I earned only $1 per day. I also called the number they had given me in court over and over, but no one answered. My sister told me that Gloria had been able to get in touch with her. The only thing I remember doing when I heard that was crying. Then I asked my sister what my daughter had told her. She said the first thing my daughter had asked was if she had heard anything from me. It turned out Gloria was being held in an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter for minors in Seattle.

Separating parents from their children isn’t just cruel. It’s torture.

They moved me to yet another detention center in Port Isabel, Tex., and told me that when I got there, I would see Gloria again. When I arrived, I asked about her, but they didn’t know anything. I called my sister again, and she gave me the number that my daughter had given her for the shelter in Seattle. Finally, I could see an end to our separation. I dialed the number. When I heard her voice again, I couldn’t find any words, I just cried and cried. My daughter told me, “Mother, don’t cry anymore, very soon we will be together.” The weeks passed, and it was sad and painful remaining apart. But at least I had hope that I’d see her soon.

I started to hear rumors that separated families were going to be reunified. I called Gloria’s lawyer and social worker, and they said they had heard she was being transferred to Laredo, but they weren’t sure what was going on. A couple of days later, I called the social worker again, and one of her colleagues answered. He said that Gloria’s social worker wasn’t there because she had left with Gloria at 11 p.m. the night before for Port Isabel. He called the social worker, who said they were outside the detention center. An officer called my name and took me to a room they call “processing.” Every minute that I waited was painful for me.

An officer called me and asked me why I hadn’t changed my clothes, because my daughter was waiting for me. No one had told me I had to change out of the detention center uniform, so I rushed to do it. They then allowed me to go to a room where families were being reunified. I saw other children and kept looking around for my daughter. Suddenly, Gloria stood up and ran into my arms. We were both crying. It was a moment of great happiness. That day, the Lord finally broke our chains and reunited me with my daughter. We were taken on a bus to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Tex. In total, we were apart for two months. I was charged with illegal entry and sentenced to time served. Now we’re detained while we wait for our asylum claim to be decided.

Maybe you’re wondering if I would have left my country knowing the realities my child and I would face. But how does a mother choose between near-certain death if we remained at home, and the uncertainty and permanent harm of separation that we will never forget?

Our story isn’t unique. Every evening in Dilley, where we have been detained since July, I talk to other reunified mothers and children in the visitation trailer, where we discuss our cases with our attorneys. We are bound together by the trauma we faced. Many of the children will not leave their mothers’ sides, even to sleep or go to school, because they are so afraid they will be separated again. As mothers, we are afraid of the same thing. I write this not only to share my story, but the story of all the families here.

I paid dearly for having entered this country. On Friday, we had been detained for 145 days. But I give thanks to God because He has put very good people in my path along the way.

Read more from Outlook:

Seeking asylum isn’t a crime. Why does Trump act like it is?

I know the fears of immigrants in the schools I oversee. I was undocumented myself.

I’m a ‘dreamer,’ but immigration agents detained me anyway.

Follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.