On Wednesday, the day she was released from ICE detention in Aurora, the Guatemalan woman met a few others at a safe house near the airport.
Someone brought yellow cake with festive blue and white icing to celebrate her release and her birthday, which passed while she was locked up. She had no appetite. Her six-year-old son was taken from her at the border and is somewhere in Texas. She has not seen him for two months.
The woman, traumatized and in poor health, is worried about her son. It took her six weeks to find out where in the country he was being held. She can’t eat, she can’t sleep and she told her attorney, there’s a tumor in her throat.
“I never imagined I would be away from my son for a single day, let alone months,” she wrote, in a firsthand account passed to The Independent through her lawyer, Laura Lunn of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. “I can’t see him, I can’t hug him. I can’t describe how much I miss him. The truth is it is killing me each day that passes when I cannot see him.
“He asks me what I’m doing, and all I think about is how difficult it is for him to understand why he is not with me. I tell him that we will be together very soon, and I keep saying that. But, I still don’t know when that will happen.”
The woman is seeking asylum and is afraid of angering the federal government, so she asked that her name not be used and insisted upon sharing her story through Lunn, who translated the woman’s messages.
The pain doesn’t pass
The woman is one of 13 immigrants moms separated from their kids at the border this spring and brought to detention in Colorado who’ve passed through northeast Denver’s nonprofit Casa de Paz in recent weeks. Just three of the 13 have been reunited, said Sarah Jackson, who runs and lives in the home.
The others, who have moved to various parts of the country, “are absolutely terrified if they’re even gonna ever see their child again,” Jackson said, “I stay in touch with them by text and every second of their day is just worrying when they’re going to get their kid.”
Denver immigration attorneys estimate that between 70 and 100 parents separated under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy are currently being held in Aurora. The number’s risen since mid-June, when attorneys and ICE said 50 parents were being held there.
Since then, ICE had stopped offering any Colorado-specific updates to the public. The agency is secretive and, over time, its media department’s occasional trickle of information about Aurora has simply stopped.
After more than 25 attempts over three weeks to reach the agency’s public information officers by phone and email, an ICE spokeswoman in Washington finally responded a few days ago to say only that there is no local update available. She provided a link to a press release entirely unrelated to the situation in Aurora.
In late June, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok, who handles outreach for Colorado, assured The Independent that there was a “plan” in the works to reunite separated parents in Aurora with their kids. He hung up the phone when pressed for details.
And so for the dozens brought to Colorado under “zero-tolerance,” including many of the estimated 20 to 30 who’ve been released to date, it remains unclear if and when they’ll see their families again, even though Trump signed an executive order intended to end family separation. In late June, a U.S. District Court judge ordered the administration to reunite the family by July 26. That order was upheld Tuesday by another federal judge, who refused a Department of Justice request to extend the deadline.
“Sometimes I think that the pain is a figment of my imagination, perhaps it is because my son is not by my side,” the woman wrote. “It could be a reflection of my mental anguish because I cannot see my son. Because I cannot sleep or eat. I keep thinking the pain will pass, but it does not.”
In May, she and her son fled Guatemala to seek asylum in the United States. The woman was very sick then, dealing not only with her tumor but also healing from a recent appendectomy, she told her attorney.
At the border, she wrote, a social worker said her son was “dirty” and needed to be bathed. He was ushered away from her for what she was told would be two days.
“He knew that I was sick and he wanted to be with me,” she added. “He was afraid I was dying and he wouldn’t see me again.”
Following their separation, the woman was brought to the ICE detention center in Aurora, a 1,500-bed facility run by GEO Group, a private prison company with a federal contract. She wondered for a month and a half where her son was.
Her health also began to deteriorate. She wasn’t eating much or getting much sleep. She worried constantly about the prospect that she’d never be reunited with her son.
“It is the most painful thing I have ever experienced,” she wrote in a message to Lunn last week.
There’s a commissary at the Aurora ICE facility, where the woman and others can buy calling cards if they have money on their accounts. Casa de Paz and other organizations fill those accounts so that detainees can contact their loved ones. When she finally tracked her son down and got to speak with him, he told her he’d been mistreated in foster care.
“They grabbed him by his arms, they punished him, they put him in a room alone. The woman was very mean to him before and harmed him. He cried a lot,” she wrote. “He said the food hurt his stomach. He was hit by the son of the woman who was charged with his care.”
From Colorado, lawyers worked to get her son eventually transferred to a new home, then taken to the hospital. He reports that he’s being treated well and making some friends.
But a call with her son’s social worker in Texas didn’t ease her mind: “The social worker got on the phone and said he gets very sad each time he talks to me. He cries a lot, they try to calm him, but he gets exceptionally sad,” the woman wrote.
“He is very impacted by us being separated. She said that other children are coping better, but my son cries all of the time. He wants to be with me, he asks to be with me. She told me that my son is suffering a lot.”
‘This is how it is’
The detention facility in Aurora is tucked inside a nondescript industrial neighborhood, populated by several auto mechanic businesses and some overflow parking lots for the ICE building.
On a hot afternoon earlier this week, a young detention officer named Darson Tabbilos monitors the front driveway. He’s aware that there are many separated parents inside, and, his voice slows and quiets when asked about it.
“We’re all human. Of course we feel sad,” he said, pausing before adding, “but this is how it is.”
During the daytime, there’s a pretty steady stream of visitors to the facility — attorneys, advocates like those who volunteer with Casa de Paz, family members and friends of detainees.
The woman has gotten to know quite a few of the other detainees brought to Colorado recently, and she says their stories seem to echo her own. It’s an impression confirmed in recent weeks by journalists around the country tracking separated children and their parents.
“I think the only reason my son changed foster homes is because my attorney spoke to the agency and filed a complaint,” the woman wrote. “I have heard similar things from other friends who are detained here. They say that their children are being mistreated by the people charged with their care.
“The social workers are not the ones charged with caring for our children, and how can we trust that the homes they are in are good for them? It is very painful because we feel like we don’t have any direct control over the treatment of our children.”
‘You can just tell’
In the six years since Jackson, now 33, opened Casa de Paz, more than 1,300 people have passed through. Some stay for a night or two, and some stop in for only a few hours.
Through getting to know the 13 moms separated under “zero-tolerance,” she’s noticed a common thread of extreme anxiety.
“I can tell by the look on the mom’s face if they have a child still in a detention center,” she said. “You can see the fear on their face, and it’s a stark difference between someone who’s been released and is headed to their family in California or wherever, and a mom who’s just been released whose child is still in detention. You can just tell the second they walk in the door.”
The Guatemalan woman was released on bond Wednesday, after getting a positive judgment at her asylum interview. The $1,500 bond was covered by Casa de Paz, which, Jackson said, has spent $22,000 on the 13 separated moms. The money comes from dues paid by teams in a local volleyball league that Jackson started.
Now the woman will have to resettle somewhere in the U.S. — she hasn’t decided exactly where that’ll be, according to Lunn — through a process in immigration court for non-detained people.
Today, she is somewhere in Texas, headed for her six year old. The only sign remaining of her at Casa de Paz Thursday was a barely eaten cake still sitting on a kitchen counter.
Photo by Alex Burness