By Ginger Thompson, ProPublica
Jimena Madrid riveted people around the world when her voice was captured on an audiotape after she was separated from her mother inside a Border Patrol detention facility. Three weeks later, reunification remains uncertain. “She says over and over, ‘Mommy, I want to be with you.’”
The last time Cindy Madrid Henriquez, a Salvadoran immigrant, spoke to her 6-year-old daughter Jimena on the telephone, the little girl, who is in an Arizona shelter, began by complaining about having to wash her hair with bar soap instead of shampoo. Her scalp was dry and itchy. She had dandruff. Then her questions grew into fears: What if her hair started to fall out? What if her scalp became infected? When, she finally wailed, was her mother going to come and save her?
Madrid, who is in a detention facility 1,000 miles away in south Texas, said most phone calls with her daughter go that way: a relatively mundane dilemma spirals into a crisis. And there’s not much that Madrid can do, except to stay calm and talk her daughter off her emotional ledges.
“She says over and over, ‘Mommy, I want to be with you,’” said Madrid, who is 29. “I tell her, ‘I know. We’ll be together soon. Until then, you have to be strong.’”
Those phone calls, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are what have kept her strong, she said, in the three weeks since immigration authorities separated her from her only child as part of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance enforcement policy, which called for criminal prosecutions of all people caught illegally crossing the border — including those, like Madrid, who subsequently request asylum. The pair’s plight captivated people around the world when ProPublica released a recording that was secretly made inside a Border Patrol detention facility and captured Jimena’s distraught cries for help after agents separated her from her mother.
Her pleas gave voice to the impact the Trump administration’s crackdown was having on the more than 2,300 children who were separated from their parents since the policy was officially launched in March — though recent reports indicate that hundreds more families were swept up in a test pilot of the program conducted last year. Mounting political pressure forced the administration to announce that it would stop separating immigrants from their children and reunify those who had already been affected. Still, there’s been no relief for those like Madrid and her daughter. On the contrary, her case shows that the retreat from zero tolerance could be as messy and painful as the launch, as she and other immigrant families seek to be reunited with their children, while pursuing separate claims for asylum.
The administration’s moves — or lack of them — indicate that it doesn’t want asylum seekers to have it both ways, despite court rulings ordering them to do so. In scathing terms last week, a federal judge in San Diego issued an injunction against the family separations and instructed the administration to reunite immigrant children with their parents by July 26. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have repeatedly asserted that they have a “well-coordinated process,” for fulfilling that order, but so far there’s been little sign of it.
Instead the administration remains committed to the goals that inspired zero tolerance in the first place, deterring people from seeking asylum, which it considers a “loophole” that undeserving immigrants use to gain legal entry into the country. The administration has sought to overturn a decades-old ruling that prohibits immigrant children from being detained more than 20 days. Immigrants already living in the United States who are related to the children being held in shelters and express a willingness to care for them are required to assume exorbitant travel costs, and submit to DNA tests, fingerprinting and other background checks without assurances that the information won’t be used for other purposes. Border Patrol agents have physically turned away people who present themselves for asylum at ports of entry, saying there isn’t enough room to process new petitioners. Meanwhile, immigration judges are setting bonds so high that detainees cannot afford to pay them.
“Their bottom line is they want people to be detained through the asylum process,” said Joan Friedland, a veteran immigration lawyer in New Mexico. “It’s the most punitive. It’s where people are least likely to have access to a lawyer and prevail. It makes people want to give up their claims and return to their home countries.”
Outside of carefully scripted press calls, officials at ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services rarely answer even the most basic questions from the media about the fate of the parents who have been separated from their children, including how many are still being detained, how many have been deported and how many have been reunified. And when they do answer questions, they offer shifting statistics and rationales.
In a media call Thursday, led by HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar, the administration said that it had some 3,000 children in its care — a much larger number than the 2,057 he reported to Congress last week. Authorities, he said, had not determined how many of those children had been separated as a result of zero tolerance and how many had simply gotten separated from their parents during their journeys. His agency has brought on an additional 230 people in order to comply with the San Diego court’s reunification deadline, he said, although he could not say how many children had been reunited with their parents so far. Last week, Azar told Congress that 500 children had been reunited.
By following Madrid and Jimena, I hoped to track the process and its impact on those going through it. But even that’s come up against arbitrary rules and resistance. Over the past week, I have made several attempts to visit Madrid. After agreeing to meet with me over the phone, Madrid declined my official request. She subsequently wrote and signed two letters saying she had made a mistake and expressing an interest in seeing me. But when I shared those letters with ICE officials in Texas, they refused to process a new request. In an email, spokesman Carl Rusnok accused me of “badgering” Madrid, and wrote, “For our already EXTREMELY busy ICE officers to repeatedly ask the same individual about a request from the same media outlet might be construed as coercive.”
As a result, I’ve only been able to speak with Madrid by telephone, which as anyone who has had to rely on detention center phones knows, is a flawed and stressful alternative. For unclear reasons, the sound quality of the calls is terrible: Madrid sounds as if she’s speaking from space — with a blanket muffling random words. I know I miss key phrases and must constantly ask her to repeat herself. I can’t read her body language. She can’t read mine. And the human connection that allows a journalist to gain an understanding of a person’s background and outlook is impossible. It’s a deeply frustrating experience for both of us. Worse, I imagine, are Madrid’s calls with Jimena.
Madrid says she’s been an emotional wreck since the moment her daughter was taken away from her. Her agony only increases as days pass without answers about if and when she and Jimena will be reunited, or even updates on how her daughter is doing. Is she eating well? How’s she sleeping? She hasn’t slept alone her entire life. She’s always slept in a bed with her mother or grandmother.
“In six years, I had only been away from her for two nights,” Madrid said. “And each time, she made me promise never to be away from her again. She hated it. We are incredibly close.”
Would she have made the trip if she had known she’d be separated from her daughter? “No,” she said, “I wouldn’t have come.”
But Madrid said staying in El Salvador wasn’t an option either. In an affidavit that is part of her asylum petition, she wrote that earlier this year a Salvadoran gang leader shot and killed her boyfriend while she was walking hand-in-hand with him. The gang member threatened to kill Madrid too unless she kept quiet, she said. She said she reported the murder to police anyway, but the gang member was never arrested.
The affidavit said that Madrid observed police officers and the gang members “talking and hanging out like old friends.”
Weeks after the murder, Madrid said, the gang member responsible approached her and Jimena in a market. She said he threatened to kidnap her daughter if he ever saw them again.
“We didn’t leave the house after that,” Madrid said. “When a gang member says something like that, they are not playing around. We were terrified.”
Madrid decided to take Jimena to the United States, where Madrid has two sisters, and Jimena has four beloved cousins. On their first try in April, they made it all the way to northern Mexico, where there is rampant cartel violence. She and Jimena were intercepted by Mexican authorities and deported back to El Salvador. They set out again in May and rafted across the Rio Grande into Texas in mid-June.
“It was a long, hard trip,” Madrid said. “But Jimena behaved really well. All her cousins are in the United States. She was really happy about coming to live with them.”
Madrid said they had no idea they were walking into zero tolerance. One of her sisters had immigrated to the United States a couple of years ago, also fleeing gang violence. That sister was only separated from her daughter for a few hours, while she pleaded her case in court. And then mother and daughter were released on bond. Madrid told her attorney, Thelma O. Garcia, that she thought that’s what was happening when a Border Patrol agent took Jimena away.
“Jimena was screaming for her mother,” Garcia said Madrid told her. “When Cindy asked what was happening, the agent told her not to worry. He was only taking Jimena while Cindy went to court. They would only be separated a few hours. Now we know that was a lie.”
Garcia said that authorities have begun reviewing Madrid’s asylum claim to determine whether her fears of persecution are credible. The attorney said that when she first met with Madrid, it was hard getting her to focus on the incidents that drove her to flee El Salvador. “Her only concern was her daughter, and what needed to do be done to reunite them as quickly as possible,” Garcia said. “The rest didn’t seem to matter.”
Weakening Madrid’s case further, Garcia says, is that her and Jimena’s asylum claims are moving along on separate tracks before separate judges who will decide whether their claims merit a full hearing. Madrid has heard about numerous other parents whose claims have been denied and who have been deported without their children. She’s worried the same could happen to her.
“I don’t want to leave without my daughter,” she said.
While their claims are under review, however, Madrid wants her daughter released from the shelter into her sister’s care in Houston. Her attorney said authorities are reviewing the request, but have not indicated when that might happen.
In the meantime, Madrid takes comfort from the dozens of other mothers in the same situation in the Port Isabel Detention Center. There are 75 women in her barracks, she said. And she’s grown close to some of them. They trade advice they’ve gotten from their lawyers to prepare for the so-called “credible fear” interviews that are part of asylum cases. They share cakes and fruit that come in occasional care packages. And they talk about their phone calls with their children. “At night you can hear many of us crying ourselves to sleep,” she said.
Madrid says she tries not to cry when she speaks with Jimena. And she’s come up with a trick to keep Jimena from crying, too: coloring books. Madrid said she told Jimena she’s begun coloring pictures that she’ll either send to her daughter in the mail, or hold onto until they see one another. She asked Jimena to do the same. On the phone, they talk about their latest works of art.
Madrid says she’s working on a picture of a doll with brown skin. She’s wearing a pink dress with yellow trim, and a crown of orange flowers. Jimena is coloring a picture of two bears embracing one another, surrounded by a heart.
“It makes her happy to feel we’re working on a project together,” Madrid said of her daughter. “It keeps us connected, for now.”