Separated and Detained: One Family's Heartbreaking Story
As U.S. officials travel to Guatemala to meet with the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras and the vice president of El Salvador, migrant families fleeing extreme violence and persecution at home continue to seek a safer future for their children in the U.S. Parents and children who are separated and indefinitely detained face toxic stress and risk psychological damage that can last a lifetime. Here is one family's story:
Originally from Guatemala, Mary* and her two children had been living in Brownsville, Texas for seven years when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials pushed in their front door one night in August 2017 and dragged them from their beds. Mary was handcuffed and taken to a detention center.
It would be five months before she saw her children again.
"ICE didn't give me any information about them," she says, still shaken. "They didn't tell me where they were, what happened to them. When they separated us in that room, that was the last time I saw the kids."
Before her arrest, Mary was a manager at a Chili's restaurant. She had worked three jobs to make enough money for the family and was about to start her own trucking business. The two children were enrolled in school. Suddenly, they were separated from their mother. They had no idea when they would be reunited.
The children were taken to a facility in Fort Worth. "My brother and I felt lonely and scared of what might happen to her," says Mary's 12-year-old daughter, Sami.* "It felt horrible because we have never been away from our mom for so many months."
Ten-year-old Jason* shows a visitor drawings he's made. In one picture, titled "The Saddest Day of Our Lives," the sun is crying "because it's a bad day." In another, rain clouds weep tears onto a building labeled "Jail of my mom."
Listen as this family tells their story in the video below:
After seven months, the family was reunited and deported to Guatemala. "I was worried where I was going to live," says Mary. "I started crying on the plane because I had no house, no money — nothing for the children. Nothing."
Crime and poverty are rampant in the area of Guatemala where the family lives now. Mary hasn't been able to find a job. UNICEF and partners are supporting the family through a program called "Te Connecta." Gang members target those deported from the U.S., assuming they have money. "I have a daughter. They look at her and say, 'Give me your daughter. I want her,'" says Mary. "If you don't do what they ask, your family members start disappearing."
Detention and separation are deeply traumatizing experiences for children. Every child has the right to be with their family. Every child, regardless of his or her immigration status, has the right to be safe and protected. UNICEF is working to keep families together.
* All names have been changed
Top photo: After seven years in Brownsville, Texas, Mary* (name changed) is trying to keep her children safe in an impoverished, crime-ridden part of Guatemala. © UNICEF