The chill of detention: Migrants describe their experiences in US custody
Children are confined to windowless rooms in metal enclosures that some call kennels.
Parents agonize for information about sons and daughters taken from their arms at the southwestern border.
Adults and children are held in prison-like conditions, with unsanitary bathrooms, lockdowns and solitary confinement.
Immigration officers mock their accents. They’re told they will never see their children again. At least one migrant was called filthy but denied access to showers.
These claims were culled from hundreds of pages filed in a lawsuit by a coalition of state attorneys general claiming that the Trump administration’s separation of families at the border violated due process and equal protection clauses of the Fifth Amendment.
The court documents allege horrid conditions endured by adult and child detainees who experts say have suffered indelible psychological scars under the family separation policy.
Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the US Department of Homeland Security — which oversees Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — declined comment on pending litigation.
There was no immediate comment from Customs and Border Protection, ICE or the respective detention centers.
Here is a look at some of the migrants’ accounts, as taken from the court documents.
Young son ‘not the same since we were reunited’
Olivia Caceres, her partner and their two sons left El Salvador in early October. They traveled through Mexico with a caravan of more than 230 migrants hoping to be granted asylum at the US border.
The couple split up when the youngest child, who was 14 months old, became ill. Their 5-year-old son continued on the journey to the border with his mother, according to court documents.
On November 12, Caceres’ partner, her toddler son and other caravan families arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing in California. When she reached Tijuana days later, Caceres learned that father and son had been separated by immigration authorities.
Caceres’ partner later told her by phone that there was nothing he could do. Immigration agents threatened to use force to take the child from him.
She learned her youngest child was being held at a shelter in Texas. At some point, she began speaking with the boy a couple of times a week via video conference. In late December, Caceres and her other son requested asylum in the San Ysidro crossing. They ended up in la hielera — the Spanish word for “icebox” that migrants and guards use to describe the frigid government holding cells — where she watched two mothers “crying and screaming” as their children were taken from them.
Caceres was released a few days later in January. She wore an ankle bracelet for months as she struggled to regain custody of the 5-year-old. The last step was a DNA test to confirm her maternity. She was reunited with her son in Los Angeles on February 8, according to court documents.
The boy looked scared. He had a blank stare. On the way home, he cried and screamed. He wouldn’t let go of her leg.
“When I took off his clothes he was full of dirt and lice,” she recalled. “It seemed like they had not bathed him the 85 days he was away from us.”
Her son “is not the same since we were reunited,” she said.
“I thought that, because he is so young he would not be traumatized by this experience, but he does not separate from me. He cries when he does not see me. That behavior is not normal.”
‘The price to pay for crossing the border’
Maricela Batres and her 8-year-old son were picked up by border patrol agents shortly after entering the United States illegally on May 20. They had fled El Salvador, where Batres said MS-13 gang members demanded $300 a month just to let them live.
“We were placed in the ‘kennel,’ where we sleep on the ground with a blanket made of aluminum,” she said, according to a court statement. “The officers told us our children would be taken from us for the crime of crossing the border.”
An immigration officer told detainees that being separated from their children was “the price to pay for crossing the border,” Batres said.
“We do this so that when you return to your countries you do not return, and so you tell your relatives not to come because we will take your children from you,” the officer told the migrants, according to court documents.
When she signed her statement June 20, she still didn’t know her son’s whereabouts.
’20 girls were detained in each cage’
A 15-year-old girl identified only as “G” fled El Salvador with her mother after threats from a gang member, according to Alma Poletti Merlo, an investigator in the civil rights unit of the Washington state attorney general’s office. Poletti interviewed eight children separated from their parents and taken to a shelter in Seattle last month and recalled those conversations in her own declaration.
Immigration authorities detained the mother and daughter in Texas in early June and they were taken to a place called the icebox. The girl was later separated from her mother, who was assured she would be able to visit her daughter. She hasn’t seen her since.
“G described this place as awful,” the court document said. “It was a room with no windows divided in three by wire fencing that made them look like three cages. 20 girls were detained in each cage. The place was freezing because they kept the air conditioner on all the time, and each child was given a mat and an aluminum blanket to keep themselves warm.”
The girls positioned their floor mats close together to make room for others. A swift kick to the mats by guards shook them out of their slumber for the daily 4 a.m. cell counts. The youngest girls were about 3. One crying 4-year-old sought comfort from a female guard, who quickly turned her away.
The 15-year-old recalled being hungry most of the time. She had no idea where her mother was but still expected her to show up and take her away. Eventually she was transferred to another shelter in Washington, where G was finally able to call her mother.
G broke down when she told Poletti Merlo that her mother — “her hero (and) a brave woman who always worked hard to support her and give her the best she could” — told her she, too, was going hungry in detention.
‘They told us that we were filthy’
Delfina Ismelda Paz Rodriguez, 23, left El Salvador with her 6-year-old daughter, Ashley. She said she was fleeing abuse and violence at the hands of her partner, a national police officer.
In May, Paz Rodriguez and Ashley illegally crossed the Rio Grande into Texas. After an hour, they were detained by border patrol.
“The first day, we were together in a dog kennel (la perrera) with 25 or 30 other people,” she said. “The conditions were terrible. We slept on the floor. It was very cold. They gave us food that was inedible.”
The next day, she was taken to court, separated from Ashley and transferred to another detention center, according to court documents.
“The conditions … were awful. I was unwell and I couldn’t sleep. I think that I had a nervous breakdown because of what I was going through. The officers yelled at us constantly and insulted us. For example, they told us that we were filthy. It was psychological torture.”
While in the second facility, she learned her daughter was with her sister in Los Angeles.
“I don’t know how she got there,” she said.
Visitors to family detention centers have described “prison-like conditions with cement floors for sleeping; open toilets; lights on 24 hours a day; inadequate food and water; and limited medical, dental, and mental health services,” Shadi Houshyar, director of early childhood and child welfare initiatives at the nonprofit Families USA, said in a court document.
“The prison-like conditions in detention, including constant surveillance can be confusing and intimidating for children,” she said. “Children may feel unsafe in detention which could be a trigger and re-traumatizing for children who have experienced past trauma.”
Children in an ICE detention center in New Mexico “lived with unsanitary bathrooms and were subjected to unjustified lockdowns and solitary confinements,” Tara Ford, clinical supervising attorney for the Youth & Education Law Project at Stanford Law School, said in a court document.
‘Don’t you know that we hate you people?’
Gladys Monroy-Guerra de Tesucum and her two sons arrived in the United States from Guatemala on May 20. She said her cousin, a drug trafficker, had threatened to dismember her after she caught him raping his stepdaughter.
At the border, immigration authorities separated her from her sons, Adolfo, 16, and Elian, 11.
“In the dog kennel, ICE (agents) mocked our accents,” she said. The agents “took away our jackets in the cold to wake us up, and they threw out our food before we were finished eating.”
Monroy-Guerra recalled one of her first encounters with immigration agents.
One said, “We don’t want you in our country,” according to court documents.
Another asked, “Don’t you know that we hate you people?”