One by one, the parents sobbed as they spoke of how their children were taken away, pleading for the public to help them find their sons and daughters.
Five parents released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from federal detention in El Paso, Tex., on the weekend spoke publicly for the first time on Monday about the harrowing and dangerous journey to claim asylum in the United States. They shared the devastation of being told they would face the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on illegal immigration, under which thousands of parents have been criminally charged and their children have been taken from them.
“Nobody, nobody, nobody here thought this would happen,” said Iris Yolany Eufragio-Mancia, whose son Ederson turned six on the day immigration authorities took him away. “This is a country that supposedly has laws, but I didn’t expect punishment.”
Ms. Eufragio-Mancia, 40, travelled with her son from Honduras. They tried to cross the border legally at a bridge in El Paso, but were turned away. So they tried again, this time crossing the river, where they were caught by border patrol.
When authorities came to take her son away, both were crying. “I didn’t want to let go of him,” she said.
She has since found out Ederson is in Arizona, but has not been able to speak to him. “I just want to hear the voice of my son,” she said. Her mother in Honduras has spoken with him, but would not share what he said because it would be too upsetting.
Miriam, whose 4-year-old son was taken from her in the middle of the night, said she has not slept and can’t stop thinking of how she was unable to say goodbye.
“I listened to him cry as they took him away,” she said. “It felt like it was my fault that he was crying and being taken away.”
Every night she thinks of her son and how he would say “’Goodnight, Mommy, I love you a lot and I miss you a lot,’” she said. Immigration authorities “don’t understand the pain we are going through,“ she said.
The five parents are among a group of 32 from Central America who were released to Annunciation House, a local shelter, after the U.S. Attorney’s office in West Texas withdrew the criminal charges against them.
Only three of the 32 parents had been able to speak to their children since they were detained. Some said officials falsely promised they would see them at the El Paso shelter.
Several parents said officials told them their children would be returned to them when they left the country. Some said their children had refused to speak with them, or with family members in the United States, because they were scared and believe their parents had abandoned them.
More than 2,500 children have been taken from their parents since the Trump administration began implementing its zero-tolerance policy in April. President Donald Trump passed an executive order last week promising to end family separations, but still charge and detain parents.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sunday that the Pentagon will build tent camps at two military bases to house families and children. He refused to say where, but media reports said families would be sent to Fort Bliss, an army base near El Paso, while as many as 20,000 unaccompanied children would be housed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in central Texas.
Congressional Republicans are scrambling to pass a legislative fix so Mr. Trump can continue his zero-tolerance policy without separating families.
The House of Representatives is likely to vote late Tuesday on a sweeping immigration bill negotiated by Speaker Paul Ryan and the White House. The bill would allow children to be kept in detention with their families longer than the current limit of 20 days, make it easier for the government to deport families, cut legal immigration and commit $25-billion from a future Congress toward Mr. Trump’s promised border wall. It would also offer a path to citizenship for some so-called “dreamers” – people who were brought illegally to the United States as children.
Mr. Ryan’s bill, however, faces opposition on both the left and the right.
If the bill dies, the GOP may opt for narrower legislation that overturns the 20-day rule and provides funding for more detention facilities that can hold families, Mark Meadows, who chairs the Republican Freedom Caucus, said on Monday.
Mr. Trump has sent mixed messages about the legislation. Over the weekend, he said the United States should turn away migrants with no legal hearing, in apparent violation of international asylum laws.
“We want a system where, when people come in illegally, they have to go out,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Monday.
Even as they pleaded for help finding their children, the parents said they were grateful for the outpouring of anger over the family separation policy and the support they have received. “I want to thank every person who took to the streets and joined protests,” said Mario, who is from Honduras. “You went out in our defence, outraged at what [immigration officials] were doing to us.” His daughter, whom he hasn’t seen for more than a month, turned 10 today.