In the tormented, sleeping corners of Mariana Ibarra Morán’s mind, the same nightmarish scene flits through her head on a loop.
It is February 2016, and she is standing in front of a woman wearing the uniform and insignia of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The then 21-year-old would later wonder if this woman was a mother.
The woman hands her a blue jumpsuit and commands her to put it on. Only then does Morán realize that she is being detained. Outside, her older sister is waiting with Morán’s 6-month old son. They wait for nearly five hours for Morán to come out before eventually heading home.
The baby is hungry. It’s time for him to nurse.
A few weeks before being summoned by ICE, Morán had made her way over the Bridge of the Americas connecting Ciudad Juárez to El Paso, Tex., and presented herself at a port of entry with her mother, sister and 6-month old son in hopes of receiving asylum.
Morán’s case had made headlines in Mexico. One of the border patrol agents on the American side had even read about her in the papers: The woman who had been kidnapped and beaten in a Juárez prison for two nights by her son’s father while prison guards looked the other way. On the third day of her captivity, he had let her go to the bathroom to clean the blood from her mouth — one of his blows had made her bracelet pierce her lip.
She managed to dial her mother, who promptly alerted the press, who quickly swarmed the prison.
That call may have saved Morán’s life. It also put her, and her entire family, in the crosshairs of both the government and the cartels. Morán’s public denunciations of government corruption had made plain what so many in Juárez knew but rarely said out loud. The cartels had castrated the government to such an extent that even the prison was their personal fiefdom.
The year before, Chihuahua state officials had, embarrassingly, proclaimed that they had wrested back power from criminal gangs inside the state’s prisons, touting in a 2015 report that the state had achieved “a total transformation.”
To make matters worse for the government, just 11 days after prison officials were forced by the cameras to let Morán go, the same prison in which she was held was set to receive the Pope.
“Never forget,” he would say to some of the very guards who had sat idly by as Morán was brutalized, “that all of you can be signs of the Father’s heart.”
Morán had started dating Jesús Eduardo Soto Rodriguez, a neighbor of her sister’s boyfriend, when she was 15 years old and he was 18. She said she didn’t know of his involvement in “Los Mexicles,” the assassination arm of the Sinaloa cartel in Juárez, until Rodriguez , also known as ‘El Lalo,’ was arrested and sent to prison a year into their relationship. She was confused. The Lalo she knew was not the person described in the news. And so, she stayed.
Once Morán turned 18, she was allowed to visit Rodriguez in prison. She saw him every other Sunday from the age of 18 to 21, willingly at first and then under threat of harm.
She became pregnant at the age of 20 and didn’t visit the prison for the duration of her pregnancy. Rodriguez, who was the father, had become abusive and she was afraid he would hurt the baby. He had worked his way up the ranks of Los Mexicles while in prison and began threatening to hurt her family and, later, to have the baby kidnapped if she didn’t resume her visits. On the day she was beaten and held inside the prison, she said two men in a small white car followed her all the way there.
Morán was detained at the El Paso Processing Center for nine months while her asylum case worked its way through the courts. In October 2016, she was granted a withholding of removal by a judge under Article III of the Convention Against Torture.
Her son was on year and three months old when she got out.
During her detention, she saw him once every 15 days. “I went back into the barracks after the visits and just cried and cried and cried,” says Morán. “He wanted nothing to do with me. For him, my sister was his mom.”
Though she is now in the country legally, Morán lives with the constant fear that she will be detained and separated from her son again. “The trauma doesn’t go away immediately after being reunited with your child. Or even after a few months” she says.
Today, Morán still sleeps next to her son, their arms wrapped tightly around each other. She is haunted by all of the firsts that she missed.
Morán was beaten and held hostage in a prison — an experience that made her eligible for relief under an international convention against torture — and yet that’s not what torments her.
“I’ve tried to forget what happened in Juarez. I won’t make a mistake like that again in my life and now I want to erase it from my past,” says Morán. “But I can’t erase this. It has marked me too much.”
The American Psychological Association has said that family separation threatens the mental and physical health of both children and their caregivers, with potential long-term effects such as post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, substance use and aggressive behavior.
Compared to today’s “zero tolerance policy” under the Trump administration, the bar to justify separating a child from a parent under the Obama administration was significantly higher. In Morán’s case, her detention was almost certainly done on public safety grounds stemming from her connection to Rodriguez and Los Mexicles.
Morán’s story is a glimpse into the lasting trauma that family separation can inflict on parents, as well as children. More than two years later, Morán still feels the weight of separation from her son — and the fear that it might one day happen again.
At the same time, now that the dust has settled, she feels a sense of tranquility knowing that she and her family are safe here in the United States, and for that she is grateful. She also knows that she was luckier than many of the families separated in the last year.
At least she knew where her son was.
Last week, a judge issued an injunction ending family separation and ordering reunification of families affected by the policy. And yet for thousands of parents, the pain of separation will not end with reunification.
It’s a toll measured in smiles never seen, milk that stopped flowing too soon, blank spaces in birthday photos. It manifests in unnaturally long hugs, a pang of terror when a child wanders out of sight, random flashes of sadness.
Morán wonders if ICE officials think about the families they have separated when they go home and see their own children.
“They don’t know what it does to you,” she says.