Kids Describe the Fear of Separation at the Border

Children who experienced the “icebox” say they didn’t know if they would see their parents again.

Paulina, a 9-year-old girl, described her experience spending days in a detention center at the border.  (Jeremy Raff / The Atlantic)

MCALLEN, Texas—At a shelter for migrants just released from detention, 9-year-old Paulina sits in front of a volunteer reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar aloud in Spanglish: “On Friday, he ate through five naranjas.” Paulina sat quietly with her books most of the afternoon.

Paulina is one of the lucky ones. The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy separated roughly 2,500 children from their parents in recent weeks, but not all families were split up. In the absence of an official explanation, advocates speculated that border agents left some families intact for lack of detention space, instead releasing them with GPS ankle trackers and a court date. After release, Border Patrol sends some of them via bus to the Catholic Charities Respite Center, where they can get a hot meal, new clothes, diapers, and even new shoelaces, which authorities confiscate during incarceration as a precaution against suicide. Then, the immigrants board Greyhound busses for points north while they wait to see an immigration judge. Most will plead for asylum protection to stay in the country, a process Trump has derided as a “loophole” that his administration has sought to curtail even before migrants reach the U.S.

Before arriving at the respite center, Paulina and the other children spent days in a detention center like the one where an activist captured audio of children crying—a recording that quickly crystallized outrage against the separations. “They caught us,” a 5-year-old Honduran girl named Ashley told me. “They took us to a hielera,” an icebox, which is how migrants widely refer to chilly government processing centers. Ashley said agents held her in a different room from her mom. “I missed her and I cried for her,” she said, “I love her.”

Oliver, 14, explained that he slept on the floor with a thin blanket that only “covers you a little.” They ate cold sandwiches, apples, and milk. He told me he feared being separated from his dad, but ultimately they were kept together.

As the sun went down, Paulina walked with a group of migrants to the bus station. The 11-floor Bentsen Tower loomed over the low-slung buildings downtown. Just days before, in the 8th-floor federal courtroom, mass trials for illegal entry had separated dozens of migrants from their children. This week, a judge ordered the government to reunite more than 2,000 children still separated from their parents, and to do so within 30 days. But that does not mean they will be released while they wait for their asylum hearings. In a court filing Friday night, the Trump administration gave its latest indication it intends to keep families detained indefinitely.

For the moment, Paulina and her mom seem cautiously optimistic about their arrival in the United States. The buses idle outside the station, and Paulina opens a book. “I feel calm because we’re here,” she said.