It was sometime in the middle of June that Ofelia Calderón’s uneasiness hit its peak. Like other immigration lawyers around the country, Calderón, a founding partner at Calderón Seguin PLC, in Fairfax, Virginia, had been monitoring Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s “zero tolerance” policy, trying to figure out how the practice of prosecuting all individuals entering the country illegally would be implemented in reality. It was starting to become clear, to Calderón and her fellow lawyers, that it was playing out in unprecedented ways: Stories had begun leaking that migrant children were being separated from parents as soon as they crossed the border, with some infants even being ripped from their mothers’ arms while breastfeeding.
Calderón is on the board of Dulles Justice Coalition, a group of lawyers who first organized in the early weeks of Trump’s presidency to go to D.C.’s airports to help represent immigrants being turned away or detained following Trump’s Muslim ban. They had stayed together as a group because “it became apparent that there might be a need for rapid legal responses in the next four years,” Calderón says; the migrant children crisis, she says, “seemed like the kind of situation where we could deploy a rapid response.” And so on June 19, Calderón and two other Dulles Justice board members headed to south Texas to see how they could help.
That Friday, two days after Trump signed his executive order that ended the separation of families at the border while doing nothing to reunite those families already torn apart, the lawyers arrived at Port Isabel Detention Center, near the remote town of Los Fresnos, Texas. More than a thousand immigrants were being held following their prosecution for illegal entry at Port Isabel — a detention center the ACLU has said “looks and operates like a jail.”
Lawyers cannot just enter such detention centers and start talking to the people held there about their legal rights — “you have to know that someone’s there, you have to know their name, you have to know their alien registration number,” says Calderón. So they obtained entry through a local nonprofit that aids immigrants seeking asylum and that already had an agreement allowing volunteers into Port Isabel.
In the seventeen years Calderón has been practicing immigration law, she says, she’s heard horrifying stories from clients fleeing violence in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador. In Port Isabel, she interviewed a woman who had been raped repeatedly by the gang member in charge of her hometown in Honduras, a man who she feared would never face prosecution because he buys off the police. But she and her fellow lawyers were still not prepared for what they encountered that weekend in south Texas.
“When I initially walked into the room of men to give them their legal-rights orientation, I noticed they all had red eyes,” says Eileen Blessinger, another D.C.-based lawyer with whom the Dulles Justice Group worked at Port Isabel. “I started the orientation and kept receiving the same questions: ‘When will I see my child?’ ‘Will I ever see my child again?’ ‘Do you know where my child is?’ ‘Do you know if my child is OK?’ ‘The president said we can call our kids — why is he lying?’ ”
“I kept asking, ‘Where did you last see your child?’ ” remembers Calderón. “They would tell me, ‘Hielera.’ For the first five interviews, I literally thought Hielera was a place. It wasn’t. Hielera is an ice box. It is a freezer. What they were describing was a large holding room kept at subzero temperatures where they were all held with their children.”
“I saw desperate women hysterically crying, begging senators and congressmembers to help them see their children again,” says Blessinger. “In their desperation, these parents wrote letters to their children, but they didn’t know how to get the letters to them. These letters are some of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. They said, ‘Be strong,’ ‘I love you,’ and ‘Believe in God because He will bring us together again soon.’ ”
Over the course of that weekend, Calderón interviewed more than forty men and women. Each had endured some form of persecution in the town they’d left behind, and all had come to America with their children. None had had any idea that their children would be taken from them, even when the separation actually occurred: They were told that they needed to leave their children while they went through some additional legal processing and that they’d be right back.
“I tire of people telling me, ‘This is a consequence of their actions and they knew it was going to happen,’ ” says Calderón. “They didn’t know it was going to happen. I think it’s supremely inhumane of people to think that way.”
In the days and weeks since they’d been separated, Calderón says, 70 percent of the people she spoke with had had no contact of any kind with their children. The remaining men and women had received a phone call or two, each lasting between one and five minutes. But even most of those parents still did not know where their children were; the only information they were able to obtain was through the children themselves, who, if old enough, could tell their parents what little they’d been able to glean about their surroundings. One of the few women Blessinger encountered who’d spoken with her child told the lawyer that, during her phone call, she could only hear her son crying, “asking why she didn’t love him and why she left him.”
Blessinger, who spent ten-hour days with the men and women in Port Isabel, says she was so traumatized by what she experienced that she had difficulty sleeping afterward. Upon returning to work, she says, “Someone asked me how I was doing and I just broke down crying. That was pretty much my entire day. If it is this hard for me to recover from being in these circumstances for five days, I don’t know how these parents or children can ever recover.”
Reports now estimate that nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents in the weeks between April 6 and June 20. Although some of them have since been reunited with their parents — including some of the youngest, who were returned earlier this week — more than 2,000 have yet to be located and returned. Calderón is now representing one of the women she met at Port Isabel, a mother who is lucky enough to know where her child is, with a foster family in Texas.
Now, instead of phoning Calderón to prep for her upcoming interview for asylum, her client is calling to talk about how worried she is about her daughter. She is concerned she’s not happy at the foster family’s; there’s another child there who’s been hitting her. “I’ve called the social worker daily for the last three days,” says Calderón. “No response.” Now she’s worried too.