Editor’s note: The Lily has chosen to protect the identities of those in this story by not using their full names.
Valquiria had never spent a day apart from her 7-year-old son, B, until March, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) whisked the little boy into a car near the Paso del Norte port of entry in El Paso, Tex., and drove away.
Valquiria had no idea where her son was being taken, or why.
“They didn’t explain anything,” she says. “They only told me that I couldn’t keep my child and they were going to take him to a shelter.” One ICE agent, she remembers, seemed to relish her agony. “He told me, ‘we’re taking him, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”
B begged her not to let them take him away.
“I don’t want to leave you, mama,” she recalls him sobbing. At one point, he looked up at her and asked, “Are they going to kill you?”
It was hardly an irrational fear for a boy who, by the age of 7, had already been the target of multiple death threats. Valquiria and her husband had asked a group of drug dealers to stop using and selling drugs outside their home in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.
Valquiria had threatened to call the police, hoping the men would be deterred enough to move elsewhere. It was, she knew, a pointless threat. At night, she would see fully uniformed police officers from her town smoking and congregating with the dealers— a familiar sight in a country rife with police corruption and state-sanctioned violence.
In February, after she threatened to alert the police in a neighboring town, the men painted death threats on the family’s home. More threats followed. Her husband and the couple’s 15-year-old daughter fled to the United States and are in the process of seeking asylum.
Valquiria followed with the couple’s son in March, flying from Sao Paolo to Mexico and eventually making her way to the Paso del Norte international bridge and into El Paso.
Watching as a U.S. government car pulled away with B in it, Valquiria, an evangelical Christian, did the only thing she could think to do. She looked skyward and asked God to protect her boy.
Valquiria was taken to the El Paso Processing Center, a detention facility indistinguishable from most American prisons. Surrounded by razor-wire, the building is located on a commercial road across from a golf course less than two miles from the El Paso International Airport.
Valquiria sleeps on a cot in a large barracks with some 60 other women. There are currently 13 other mothers in Valquiria’s barracks who have been separated from their children — 19 children in all.
Two weeks into her detention, a U.S. asylum officer concluded that Valquiria had a credible fear of torture in Brazil. She still had no idea where her son was.
Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made family separation official U.S. policy, upending decades of precedent that makes the welfare of children paramount in immigration decisions.
Under Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, DHS will refer every person who crosses the border illegally to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution, even if that person enters with a child.
The practical effect of the policy is that any parent and child entering the U.S. illegally will be separated. The new policy ostensibly does not apply to asylum-seekers who present at an official port of entry, though Valquiria’s case suggests otherwise (ICE has not responded to requests for an explanation as to why Valquiria was separated from her son, but her husband believes it is because of a missed court date from an earlier asylum proceeding several years ago. At the time of the scheduled hearing, Valquiria had already voluntarily left the country to go back to Brazil).
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency responsible for unaccompanied minors, has confirmed that more than 700 children have been separated from people claiming to be their parents since October 2017.
The policy, which overturns previous CBP guidance stating that parents and children should generally not be separated, is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent asserting that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children is one of the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by the Supreme Court.”
“If the public knew what we were doing to kids, they would be appalled,” says Jessica Jones, formerly of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, a nonprofit that supports refugees and migrants. “Imagine traveling internationally, arriving at a border station and having an entry official essentially rip your child from your hands and place them in some sort of custody where you have no idea where they are.”
It’s also incredibly harmful, according to medical professionals who specialize in the treatment of children. “These are children who have seen or witnessed or heard about horrific things in their home countries in Central America or coming through Mexico,” says Marcia Griffin, a pediatrician who practices in the border town of Brownsville, Tex.
“The one thing they do not need is to have the one stable, loving person in their life taken away from them,” she says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has strongly denounced the policy, telling policymakers in a May 2018 letter that family separation can “carry lifelong consequences for children.”
A 2017 report by the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders called the situation in Central America, where most migrants to the U.S. arrive from, “akin to the conditions found in the deadliest armed conflicts in the world today.”
B spent two weeks in a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Texas before being placed with his father. “It was, like, three or four days that I didn’t know where he was,” said B’s father, who asked not to be named in order to protect his family’s privacy. “I couldn’t talk with my wife either. She called me on the third day and said, ‘do you know where B is?’ and I said ‘no.’ I didn’t know where he is. I just got crazy.”
Eventually, he received a phone call from ORR notifying him of his son’s whereabouts. He had to pay to have a guardian accompany B on a flight to Massachusetts, where he lives, and then pay for their return trip.
“He is very sad,” B’s father said of his son. “He has never been separated from his mom.”
B is more fortunate than many children rendered unaccompanied by DHS, who spend months in shelters or in foster care with complete strangers. “No one should do this to children,” B’s father said. “We’re not bad people. We just want to make our family safe.”
Valquiria continues to be held in detention as her asylum case works its way through the courts. She is now able to speak with her family on the phone and, each time she does, B asks when he will see her again.
“The day I’m reunited with my child will be the best day of my life,” Valquiria says.
Until then, more than 2,000 miles away from his mother, B waits for her return.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that Valquira threatened to alert the police in November 2017. She did so in February, shortly before fleeing Brazil.
Rikha Sharma Rani is a contributing reporter and editor for the Fuller Project for International Reporting. This report was produced in collaboration with the Fuller Project with support in El Paso from Mariana Sierra.