Every day, Zenén Jaimes Pérez goes to the courthouse in McAllen, Texas, to speak with devastated parents who were separated from their children after crossing the border.
As a group of 60 to 80 migrants wearing chains and handcuffs await their hearings, the communications director at the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) asks them questions: When were your children taken away? Do they have any medical issues? When were you told you would see them again?
When Jaimes Pérez asks, “How are you feeling at this moment?” he says most of the parents break down. “People start crying,” he told HuffPost. “They say, ‘I’m not doing well and I feel like I can’t live anymore.’”
He’s spoken with a mother who was separated from her 10-year-old son, who has a mental disability, and with parents who talk about committing suicide if they can’t be reunited with their kids. His colleague recently spoke to a man who had hardly eaten since Border Patrol took away his 11-year-old son in late May. Through tears, the Guatemalan man said that if he’s deported without his family, his son would “die of sadness.”
“The interview process is very horrific,” said Jaimes Pérez. “We’re trying to get as much information as possible from someone who is crying and someone who is distraught and who doesn’t know what’s happening.”
Since the Trump administration launched its zero tolerance immigration policy, Jaimes Pérez and other staff at TCRP have interviewed more than 300 migrants in an effort to reunite parents with their children. The TCRP workers send the information they gather to lawyers, who then visit migrants in detention centers to help them find their kids and shepherd them through the asylum process.
Their work is necessary because the government has admitted it has no concrete strategy to ensure that mothers and fathers can find their kids. (On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced an executive order that would stop the practice of separating families, but more than 2,342 children are still apart from their parents.)
“It’s those slow-rolling tears where you’re still able to talk and have a conversation but the tears don’t stop.”
“If the government is willing to take children away, they are not necessarily interested in the reunification process, and we’ve realized that,” said Carlos García, a Texas-based immigration attorney who has been helping TCRP with the courtroom interviews. “Parents don’t know where their children are, and they don’t know why they are being taken. They don’t know the next time they’re going to talk to them.”
Efrén Olivares, the racial economic justice program director at TCRP, says the parents become very emotional when talking about their kids. One mother fainted. Others sit hunched over, staring at the ground. Most “have watery eyes,” he said, “and some break down sobbing during the interview.” The hardest part is when he has to tell them, “I can’t guarantee when you’re going to see your children again.”
After the courthouse interviews, Olivares helps pair migrants with immigration lawyers such as Jodi Goodwin, who visits women in detention centers. Goodwin says that Border Patrol falsely told migrants they would see their children after going through a court hearing.
“That is a complete falsehood,” she said. “None of the mothers have been immediately reunited with their children.” Instead, by the time many parents have left court, their kids have been transferred to longer-term facilities and are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, making them very hard to track down.
She recently spoke to a woman from Honduras who was kept for two nights in a holding cell that was approximately 25 to 30 yards from where her 9-year-old child was detained. “She could look out the window and see her daughter across the Border Patrol station,” said Goodwin. “She couldn’t comfort her daughter, talk to her or console her when she was crying. But she could watch this from a distance.”
She said the mothers separated from their children are completely distraught.
“It’s those slow-rolling tears where you’re still able to talk and have a conversation but the tears don’t stop,” Goodwin said. “Then there’s the extreme sadness and helpless crying, where the tears are more guttural. ... They gasp for air while they are crying.”
Interviewing parents can be emotionally distressing for advocates. Jaimes Pérez says he only slept an hour last night and described a ritual of grabbing coffee with his colleagues after leaving the courtroom to help process the heartbreaking conversations.
He says one of the most disturbing moments is at the end of the interview, when parents have to sign their statement.
“They try to sign as their hands are chained,” Jaimes Pérez said. “Which is a difficult thing to do as you’re weeping.”