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Sep 29, 2018

When they took my son

Co-produced with PRX Logo

A 6-year-old child sleeps in a vacant office building, surrounded by strangers. An infant is taken from his breastfeeding mother. We examine the stories of two families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and how what happened to them matches up with what the government said was supposed to happen.

From Reveal’s Aura Bogado, and Neena Satija (who also works with our partners at The Texas Tribune), Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, along with Casey Miner.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Exclusive: Immigrant kids held in second Phoenix office seen bathing in sinks
  • Read: Defense contractor detained migrant kids in vacant Phoenix office building
  • Read: Doctor giving migrant kids psychotropic drugs lost certification years ago

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:17:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Al Letson: For months now, we've been investigating the Trump administration's policy of family separation. In all, more than 2,600 children were taken from their parents at the border. Even now, two months after a federal court deadline to reunite parents and their children, there are still kids who remain separated. We're only now learning about the mechanics of how these separations worked.
Al Letson: Today, we're digging into that with the help of a young child who was taken from his mom. A child with a remarkable memory. A few months back, we broke a story about an office building in Phoenix. We found out that immigrant kids who were separated from their parents were being kept there. This building wasn't designed to be used as a shelter, and it wasn't a licensed childcare facility. Children were being kept there overnight with no showers, no yard to play in, nothing. MVM, a big defense contractor, was running the operation. We learned what was happening from interviews, documents, and videos of kids being marched into the building.
Aura Bogado: But the only people who can really tell us what happened inside of that office building, are the people who were inside of that office building.
Al Letson: That's Reveal immigration reporter, Aura Bogado. Hey, Aura.
Aura Bogado: Hey, Al.
Al Letson: Okay, so initially we only knew so much about what the conditions were like inside the office building, but now that's changed.
Aura Bogado: Yes. Thanks to this little boy.
Aura Bogado: This is Wilson. He's seven.
Wilson: [Spanish 00:01:35] One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
Speaker 1: Wow.
Aura Bogado: Despite everything that's happened to him and everything that could still happen to him, he's just this irrepressibly happy kid. He's smart, he's quick, and he has a really good memory.
Aura Bogado: And so, here you can hear him say, [Spanish 00:02:12], so yeah, he was in that MVM office. He slept there. And that's the most basic thing here, no one should have ever slept in that office. But let me back up a little bit and tell you about Wilson's story. I want you to meet his mom too.

 

Maria Antonia L: Maria Antonia Laria-Soto

 

Aura Bogado: This is Maria Antonio Laria-Soto. Everyone calls her [Tonita 00:02:35]. Tonita and Wilson left Guatemala towards the end of May this year when Wilson was just six-years-old.

 

Aura Bogado: They traveled through Mexico and they crossed the border in Arizona. They literally describe walking through this gate on the border. They were picked up by border patrol and they were taken to a border patrol station where they're put in a [Spanish 00:03:02], in an icebox.

 

Al Letson: These are really cold rooms, right? They're known as iceboxes because people describe them as freezing cold, and they're just given a Mylar sheet to stay warm.

 

Aura Bogado: Yes. I've been reporting on these iceboxes, these [Spanish 00:03:16], for almost a dozen years. In all of those years, Tonita gave me one of the best descriptions I've ever heard of these places:

 

Aura Bogado: A concrete room, no windows. It's full to the rim of women and children, and you can tell how long people have been there by how they smell, because there's no place to take a shower. You get a cup of noodles for every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. You have to use that same cup to fill up your water at this little sink that's literally attached to the toilet that people use. You don't get a change of clothes. You get this little mat to sleep on. Tonita told me that she would find a spare piece of mat at a woman's feet and have Wilson curl up there just so he would have a safe place to sleep.

 

Al Letson: Tonita and Wilson, how long were they there?

 

Aura Bogado: Yeah, they were there six days. Waiting. It's important to note that Tonita knows that the government is going to take Wilson away from her. It's one of the very first things that they tell her when they arrive.

 

Aura Bogado: She's saying that she started crying in front of her son when she tells him that they're going to take him away from her.

 

Aura Bogado: He told me, "Don't cry, Mom. Don't cry." He cleaned the tears off my face with his jacket. I wanted to be strong for him, to not cry, but can't be done.

 

Aura Bogado: Some of the other women that she was there with try to make her feel better by saying, "Look, this is no place for kids. He'll be better off if they take him."

 

Aura Bogado: But it doesn't make her feel any better. She describes it as being hit, like someone is physically hitting her. An emotional gut-punch.

 

Aura Bogado: After six days, they wake her up at 3:30 in the morning and they tell her that they're taking him.

 

Al Letson: Who is "They?"

 

Aura Bogado: Al, that's a really good question. I've always thought that border patrol took these kids, that's what we'd been told. ICE has also said that they don't do that. But what they are doing is contracting out to this private company, the defense contractor MVM. That's who takes Wilson.

 

Al Letson: Okay, so let me get this straight. Back when family separation was still happening this summer, MVM, a private contractor, was actually the one physically separating some children from their parents. Is that right?

 

Aura Bogado: Correct. When I talked with Wilson, I showed him a bunch of photos of different people. Some I had printed out, and some were just photos that I had screenshotted on my phone. Some of the photos are of MVM employees, but some of the people in these images are just random people I found online. I wanted to make sure to do that because I didn't want to lead Wilson on to any conclusions.

 

Aura Bogado: Here you can hear me saying, "I don't know if you recognize this person? Do you recognize him?"

 

Wilson: No.

 

Aura Bogado: Wilson is saying, "No."

 

Wilson: No.

 

Aura Bogado: No.

 

Wilson: No.

 

Aura Bogado: No. There's a whole bunch of no's. Then suddenly he does recognize one face.

 

Al Letson: He sounds very sure.

 

Aura Bogado: Wilson was sure, and he was right. Tonita also confirmed that this is the person who took him from her. I also have documents to back this up. His name is Demetrio Reyes, and we know that he's driven children for MVM.

 

Al Letson: I want to talk more about Demetrio Reyes, but first tell me about how Tonita and Wilson meet him. You said the staff from the icebox, they wake them up in the middle of the night, and then what happens?

 

Aura Bogado: They call Tonita's name and she's told to bring her son. She describes having to walk over people to make her way out of the [Spanish 00:07:47]. She goes into another room that she describes as a sort of hallway room that's full of benches. That's where she is with Wilson and a whole bunch of other kids, but they're all teenagers except for her son. Remember, he's just six-years-old at this time.

 

Aura Bogado: They all wait and the kids are called one by one. Finally, Demetrio Reyes calls Wilson's name. Tonita has always described Wilson as a very obedient little kid, and so when Wilson hears his name, he just goes towards the door. Tonita runs after him to try and say goodbye. At first, Reyes says that she can't do that.

 

Aura Bogado: She says he basically tells her, "Look, I'm just doing my job." But he does let her say goodbye.

 

Aura Bogado: She hugs Wilson, and she told me she couldn't even talk. She had no voice left.

 

Aura Bogado: She wonders if Wilson is going alone. She wonders where he's going. She tries to ask for information but Reyes won't tell her.

 

Aura Bogado: One of the things about this is that a lot of the people who work for MVM transporting the kids, they're often almost kids themselves. Demetrio Reyes is 24-years-old. He's a college student. He's a veteran. He's Tonita's age. I want to show you this picture that he posted on Facebook, it was just three days after he had taken Wilson away from Tonita.

 

Al Letson: It's a picture of him in a tree with his mom under him and he's holding a cute, young relative, I imagine. The kid, he may be three- to five-years-old. He's got a Buzz Lightyear T-shirt on. The caption beside the photo is "Love my momma."

 

Aura Bogado: I mean he had just taken Wilson away from his own momma, just a few days before. It's difficult to know what's going through his mind when he posts this, but there's definitely an irony here.

 

Al Letson: I know you've left a lot of messages for Demetrio Reyes and haven't gotten a response, so we just don't know what he thinks about his individual role in all of this. But I got to say, I'm just so struck that this is a brown man taking a brown boy from his brown mom.

 

Aura Bogado: If you think about it, it sort of makes sense because so many people who are apprehended at the border do speak Spanish, and so I think it facilitates that communication. If you want to take a child from their parent, why not say it in their language?

 

Al Letson: I mean behind all of this there's serious questions about race, how race plays into these larger policy decisions. You have to reflect upon the fact that when Donald Trump was on the campaign trail, he called Mexican immigrants rapists. He said they bring drugs and crime. Then when he becomes president, his administration implemented a zero-tolerance policy and family separation. To do all that, we're learning that the government is relying on paid contractors, private American citizens to do the work of separating children from their parents.

 

Aura Bogado: We think of the government or border patrol as some nebulous entity that is taking these kids, but these are individual people who made this process happen.

 

Al Letson: What did MVM have to say about this?

 

Aura Bogado: I've asked MVM for an interview many times throughout my reporting. When I contacted this time, they declined. But spokesman Joseph [Arrobit 00:11:56] sent me a long email that included the following statement. He wrote, and I quote:

 

Aura Bogado: "It would be inaccurate to describe MVM or any of its employees of 'taking or separating a child from his or her parent that authority rests solely with the responsible agency.'"

 

Aura Bogado: MVM is making this distinction and saying that there's a government agency that's accountable here. But Tonita knows who physically took her son away from her, and Wilson recognized him too. It's not a uniformed officer of the United States government, it was Demetrio Reyes in a polo shirt, an MVM worker.

 

Al Letson: MVM's rationalization for this, it's basically saying ... let's say I was trying to build something and I had two pieces of wood. I need a nail to hold them together, and I use a hammer to drive that nail into the wood. I cannot excuse the hammer from that equation. If I don't have the hammer, the nail doesn't go into the wood.

 

Al Letson: In this case, MVM is the hammer. They are the tool that is actually going out and separating these children from their parents. Basically, the people who got their hands dirty was MVM.

 

Aura Bogado: They got their hands dirty and their pockets pretty full.

 

Al Letson: Since 2014, MVM has secured government contracts worth up to 225 million dollars for the transportation of immigrant children. In July, ICE press secretary Jennifer Elzea told us that MVM is authorized to use office spaces as waiting areas for minors awaiting same-day transportation. She also said these offices are not for overnight housing, that's a part of the contract.

 

Al Letson: We requested a list of locations where MVM was authorized to hold children, but ICE told us no such record exists. Meaning: ICE didn't track where MVM was keeping all those kids. For their part, MVM has declined to tell us how many offices are used to keep children overnight, or where those offices are located.

 

Al Letson: When we come back, Wilson tells us what it was like to live inside that Phoenix office building surrounded by strangers. You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Today, family separation through the eyes of a child. After coming to the U.S. from Guatemala, six-year-old Wilson and his mom, Tonita, spent six days in a border patrol holding cell known as an icebox. Then, in the middle of the night, Wilson was taken from his mom. The man who took him wasn't a border patrol agent or an ICE officer but a private citizen, a 24-year-old man named Demetrio Reyes who works for the defense contractor MVM, the company that kept separated children in a vacant Phoenix office building.

 

Al Letson: Reveal immigration reporter Aura Bogado has been following this story, and she's here to tell us what came next for Wilson.

 

Aura Bogado: Wilson is put in a van and taken to the office building. He remembers a lot. He told me that Reyes was nice to him, that he'd spoke to him in Spanish.

 

Aura Bogado: He also remembered what he ate.

 

Wilson: Sandwich [Spanish 00:15:35].

 

Aura Bogado: Cheese sandwiches with lettuce for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

 

Aura Bogado: With water or maybe apple juice, sometimes they threw in chips. By the way, MVMs spokesman told me that there were other foods available like oatmeal and hot breakfast sandwiches. But I asked Wilson about this several times and he never described anything but a cold cheese sandwich.

 

Aura Bogado: Something else I asked Wilson to do was to draw me pictures of where he was kept, so let me show you a few of those. This is Wilson's first drawing for me. This is what he describes as where he slept in the office. It's very abstract children's art, but you can sort of see-

 

Al Letson: I get it this are the sleeping bags or the bunks that they were in, right?

 

Aura Bogado: Yeah. Those are the mats or mattresses that they had on the floor, there are eight of them.

 

Al Letson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). These are actually good drawings. I'm a child art connoisseur because I have four of them, so I've had to go through this many times. You learn how to translate.

 

Al Letson: Okay, this is one is him and a friend.

 

Aura Bogado: This is a drawing that Wilson says is him and someone else who was in this office building with him washing their hair in the sink.

 

Aura Bogado: [Spanish 00:17:03].

 

  Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:17:04]
  Section 2 of 3          [00:17:00 - 00:34:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Aura Bogado: ... washing their hair in the sink

 

Speaker 4: [foreign language 00:17:02].

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:17:03]?

 

Wilson: Si.

 

Aura Bogado: He says that the office where he slept was the same place where he washed his hair, in the sink, and he washed his hair in the sink because there wasn't a shower there.

 

Al Letson: So how long was he in the office?

 

Aura Bogado: He was in the office for two days, and on the third day he got moved to a shelter. He drew me a picture of what it was like when he'd pray for his mom. He told me that he used to pray for his mom all the time, and the way he did it is he would tuck himself into bed and place himself under a blanket, and then under the blanket pray for his mom.

 

Wilson: [foreign language 00:17:41].

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:17:44].

 

Wilson: [foreign language 00:17:46].

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:17:45].

 

Aura Bogado: It was almost three weeks before he and [Tonita 00:17:50] got to talk.

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:17:52].

 

Aura Bogado: She was in a detention center. She'd been moved to Colorado by then.

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:17:58].

 

Aura Bogado: They were on the phone for four minutes.

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:18:04].

 

Aura Bogado: "... and since I'd never talked to my son by phone because he'd always been by my side ..."

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:18:13].

 

Aura Bogado: "... I didn't recognize his voice."

 

Al Letson: And then she says the phone cut out without warning. In all, Wilson was separated from Tonita for nearly two months.

 

Aura Bogado: Wilson's birthday is in June, and he turned seven alone in a shelter.

 

Al Letson: When they were finally reunited, Wilson and Tonita flew to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where they had family. Now, Aura, you were there with the family waiting for them to arrive. You sat with them while they talk to Wilson on the phone before his flight. What was that like?

 

Aura Bogado: First, let me play this for you.

 

Wilson: Hola!

 

Tonita: Hola [foreign language 00:18:55]?

 

Wilson: Si.

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:18:56].

 

Al Letson: That sounds like a completely different atmosphere. It's so joyful.

 

Wilson: Hola, abuela. [foreign language 00:19:10]?

 

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:19:10].

 

Wilson: Si.

 

Speaker 5: [foreign language 00:19:16].

 

Wilson: [inaudible 00:19:16].

 

Al Letson: So how has Wilson handled the transition from the shelter back to his family life?

 

Aura Bogado: When he finally gets to the house with his family, everything is different. He has his own bed. He's with his mom. They sleep in the same room in this bunk bed, and he hears the voices, the accents, of the people that are familiar to him. This is his family. We walked through his whole garden, and he's pointing out the name of every plant, every single everything. And I'm pretty good with plants, and I was just blown away. This is like this little baby botanist out.

 

Speaker 6: [foreign language 00:19:59].

 

Aura Bogado: He's eating the foods he knows. His great-grandmother made tortillas by hand. They're sharing a meal together.

 

Speaker 6: [foreign language 00:20:08].

 

Aura Bogado: You can just hear it in that giddy laughter. It's so pure. I'd feel like everything that was ... the hardcore, the tragedy and the trauma, we've put a period on that in some ways, and now it almost feels like the next chapter in his book.

 

Al Letson: And Wilson's actually started his next chapter, right?

 

Aura Bogado: Yes. He started school. I went with him to meet his teacher for the first time, and from the minute we got in the car, right? We're about to go to the school for the first time. He was so excited. He was bouncing off the wall. He's yelling phrases in English and Q'eqchi', which is the indigenous language that he picked up from his friends at the shelter. And he's playing with my recording kit, and I won't play you all of that because it'll hurt your eardrums, but he was so excited. He gave himself hiccups.

 

Speaker 7: ... backpack in the back. I can do it.

 

Wilson: I don't know.

 

Speaker 7: Thank you. [inaudible 00:21:10] me to?

 

Speaker 8: Yeah, I forgot [crosstalk 00:21:12].

 

Wilson: I don't know.

 

Aura Bogado: And it was so awesome to see him there. He's got a cubby in his new classroom. He's got his name on the little desk where he's gonna sit next to all of his little friends. Walking into that classroom just reminded me that Wilson is a first grader. He really is that little.

 

Al Letson: This is so great. This story started off so hard, and now you're just making me smile the whole time. It's so good to hear it.

 

Aura Bogado: [foreign language 00:21:42]?

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:21:45].

 

Aura Bogado: And Tonita was happy, too ...

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:21:49].

 

Aura Bogado: ... that she came to introduce her son, that he's gonna learn.

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:21:55].

 

Aura Bogado: Even though the journey was hard, now ... now she's happy.

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:22:02].

 

Aura Bogado: There are countless questions that still remain about her immigration case, and she doesn't know what's gonna happen there, but she does know that her son is finally in school.

 

Julie Hough: Hi, I'm Julie [Hough 00:22:22].

 

Speaker 9: This is Wilson.

 

Julie Hough: All right. How are you, Wilson?

 

Speaker 10: [inaudible 00:22:25].

 

Julie Hough: Let's see. Wilson ... I think you are right [crosstalk 00:22:29].

 

Speaker 10: Right here tomorrow morning.

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:22:32].

 

Julie Hough: Okay?

 

Aura Bogado: We met his teacher. Her name is Miss Hough, and she was really great. She was so sweet with him. And at one point she asked him what probably a lot of teachers are asking kids ...

 

Julie Hough: So, Wilson, what did you do this summer? What'd you do this summer?

 

Aura Bogado: There's always gonna be this shadow, right?

 

Tonita: [foreign language 00:22:52]?

 

Aura Bogado: I mean, how does Wilson possibly begin to answer that? So I explained a little.

 

Julie Hough: Yes.

 

Aura Bogado: My name is Aura ...

 

Julie Hough: Hi.

 

Aura Bogado: ... and [inaudible 00:23:04] tell you a little more.

 

Julie Hough: Okay.

 

Aura Bogado: You may have heard about family separations.

 

Julie Hough: Yes.

 

Aura Bogado: So they were separated.

 

Julie Hough: Oh, okay.

 

Aura Bogado: So that's ...

 

Julie Hough: All right.

 

Aura Bogado: That was a big part of his summer.

 

Julie Hough: Oh, okay. All right. Well, I am glad you're here. You have a nice smile, and you have happy eyes. I'm so happy you're here, okay?

 

Al Letson: Aura Bogado, thank you so much.

 

Aura Bogado: Thank you, Al.

 

Al Letson: Wilson's been in school for about a month and a half, and his mom tells us he's doing well. He even joined the Cub Scouts. Thanks to Reveal's Aura Bogado and [Casey Minor 00:23:53] who produced that story.

 

Al Letson: So why did so many kids like Wilson get separated from their parents? The White House says it's because families were breaking federal law, but that's not exactly what we found. That's up next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. How did we get here? How is it that thousands of children were stripped from their parents by the United States government? Well, to answer that I want to take you back to March of 2017 and an interview between CNN's Wolf Blitzer and John Kelly, who was the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time. He's Trump's Chief of Staff now.

 

Wolf Blitzer: Are you, the Department of Homeland Security, considering a new initiative that would separate children from their parents if they try to enter the United States illegally?

 

John Kelly: Yes, I am considering it, in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents.

 

Al Letson: Parents and kids being separated as a deterrent. Kelly's statements were met with outrage, and it didn't take long for him to walk them back. But by the fall of 2017, lawyers and journalists were documenting some of the first cases. Family separation was beginning quietly. Then, the spring, the caravan happened.

 

Speaker 11: A caravan of immigrants marching towards America, where we live.

 

Speaker 12: We begin with the caravan at the border. Nearly 200 men, women, and children are hoping to step foot on U.S. soil.

 

Al Letson: Hundreds of immigrants, many fleeing violence in Central America, traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, and many of them planned to enter the United States at a border crossing, an official port of entry. Their goal? To claim asylum, legally.

 

Donald Trump: Are you watching that mess that's going on right now with the caravan coming up? And our laws are so weak ...

 

Al Letson: The caravans were a thumb in the eye to the President, who promised to be tough on immigration, especially because he couldn't do much to stop them. But he could crack down on people who crossed illegally.

 

Speaker 13: Zero-tolerance policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions laying down the law with a brand new immigration crackdown right at the border.

 

Al Letson: Here's how Jeff Sessions said zero tolerance would work.

 

Jeff Sessions: If you violate the law, you subject yourself to prosecution.

 

Al Letson: In other words, Sessions wants every single person who crosses illegally to prosecuted for a federal crime known as Improper Entry by Alien, and he wants them to go to jail, even parents traveling with young children.

 

Jeff Sessions: Non-citizens who cross our borders unlawfully with children, they are the ones who broke the law. They are the ones who endangered their own children with this trek.

 

Al Letson: With parents facing incarceration, the administration argued it had no choice but to separate kids, and kids can't go to jail with their parents. Suddenly, family separations exploded, and no longer was it being described as some radical new policy. Now, the White House said it was about enforcing the law, cracking down on people who cross illegally. We've been looking into this claim. Neena Satija with our partners at the Texas Tribune, along with Reveal's Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, have been following one family for months, a family you first heard about on our show back in June. When they crossed the border this summer, this family says they did everything in their power to follow the law. They weren't prosecuted for crossing illegally, yet for some reason they were still touched by every aspect of Trump's family separation policy. Nina takes the story from here.

 

Neena Satija: I first visited Hilda Aldana back in July at her apartment in suburban L.A.

 

Neena Satija: Hola.

 

Hilda Aldana: Hola, [foreign language 00:28:03].

 

Neena Satija: [foreign language 00:28:03].

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:28:03].

 

Neena Satija: [foreign language 00:28:04].

 

Neena Satija: She's gracious and dressed up to meet me.

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:28:07]?

 

Neena Satija: Si, si. [foreign language 00:28:08].

 

Neena Satija: Hilda is in her mid-40s, young for a grandmother.

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:28:15].

 

Neena Satija: She's in the middle of painting, and apologizes for the mess. She says she's getting the apartment ready for her four grandkids and her daughter Sandy. She thought they'd be here weeks ago.

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:28:29].

 

Neena Satija: In May, Hilda got a call from Sandy. She was with her kids, all boys, ages 12, 8, 5, and her youngest a baby just a few months old. They'd been traveling for weeks, and now they were standing at an official port of entry, a bridge stretching over the Rio Grande. Before crossing, they dialed Hilda.

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:28:55].

 

Speaker 14: The kids called me before getting in line to surrender to Border Patrol. They said that in line, they gave the baby a happy birthday hug because he was turning five months. They told me, "We're about to surrender to Border Patrol."

 

Neena Satija: Sandy and the kids were coming to claim asylum.

 

Hilda Aldana: Okay [foreign language 00:29:17].

 

Speaker 14: I said, "Okay, my loves. First, God willing, we'll see each other very soon."

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:29:24].

 

Speaker 14: "Yes, Mama Hilda, because as soon as we arrive we want you to take us to eat pizza or hamburgers." "Okay, my loves, whatever you want."

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:29:37].

 

Neena Satija: A few days passed, then Hilda got another call from Sandy. She was in Border Patrol custody.

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:29:44].

 

Speaker 14: But the sad part was, when my daughter called me on Monday. She said, "I'm here with the kids, but they just told me that they're going to take away the kids. Why?"

 

Neena Satija: "Why?" is a good question. Remember, the Trump Administration says family separation was all about enforcing the law, prosecuting people who were crossing illegally. But Sandy says she did everything by the book. She went to a bridge and waited in line. She turned herself over to Border Patrol at a port of entry. It's one of the many ways to claim asylum, and it's all totally legal. But Sandy's kids were taken from her anyway and sent two states away to Arizona, and she got locked up in an immigration detention called Port Isabel at the southern tip of Texas.

 

Neena Satija: It's really hard for reporters to get into immigration detention centers to do interviews, but it's different if you're a lawyer, and at the height of the family separation crisis lawyers were flocking to Port Isabel.

 

Ruby Powers: Once you're going in, you're sort of in a different world.

 

Neena Satija: Ruby Powers is an immigration lawyer who specializes in asylum.

 

Ruby Powers: There's cameras everywhere. There's barbed wire. Pop a trunk. Show your insurance, show your ID.

 

Neena Satija: I mean, do you feel like you're driving into a prison, basically, when you go to this facility?

 

Ruby Powers: Yeah, of course. Yeah, of course. Yeah. I mean, it definitely looks like a jail. It is a jail.

 

Neena Satija: Ruby when to Port Isabel to meet with about a dozen parents whose kids have been taken from them. I asked her if she could meet Sandy, too.

 

Ruby Powers: It was a really busy day. I had to wait two hours to get a visitation room, and then they brought me her.

 

Neena Satija: Sandy was escorted into the room. She was wearing a blue jumpsuit. Ruby says she was friendly, well-composed.

 

Ruby Powers: I think I said, "My name is Ruby. I'm an immigration attorney. I'm here to help you."

 

Neena Satija: It was one of Ruby's last meetings before heading back to Houston.

 

Ruby Powers: And I thought, "I'm just gonna talk to her for a little bit, and then I'm gonna go," but when she started telling me her story I ... it's almost like time slowed down and all I could think about was what she was saying.

 

Neena Satija: What Sandy said is that back in Guatemala, she'd been abused, her life threatened. Local police and gang members targeted her and her family. I've seen records from the Guatemalan National Police that backs some of this up. For her safety, we're not disclosing her full name or her kids' names. Years ago, Sandy had tried coming to the U.S. illegally and got deported. Because of that, it's unlikely she'll be able to get asylum now, but she is eligible for something you could call asylum-lite, which could allow her to stay in the U.S. and work. Ruby says Sandy's case to stay here is a strong one, one of the strongest she heard during her visits at Port Isabel.

 

Neena Satija: Sandy also told Ruby about her four sons. She hadn't seen them in about a month. She described the moment her baby was taken from her.

 

Ruby Powers: She told me that the guard said they had to take her baby away, and she said, "But I'm still breastfeeding him," you know? And they said it doesn't matter. She said, "No, but I'm breastfeeding." They said, "No, we still have to take him." And that our government took a breastfeeding ... a baby away from her ... it's ... I just couldn't believe it. I don't know what else to say about that.

 

Neena Satija: I was never able to interview Sandy in person, but I did get a chance to talk to her over the phone. Sandy happened to call while I was visiting Hilda's apartment in Southern California. She was calling from the detention center to talk to her mom.

 

Speaker 15: [inaudible 00:33:48] Port Isabel Detention Center.

 

Sandy: Mami?

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:33:54]?

 

Speaker 14: How are you, my dear daughter?

 

Sandy: [foreign language 00:33:57].

 

Neena Satija: Sandy says she's desperate to leave.

 

Hilda Aldana: [foreign language 00:34:01]?

 

Speaker 14: Did you talk to the kids, Mami?

 

Sandy: [foreign language 00:34:03] ...

 

  Section 2 of 3          [00:17:00 - 00:34:04]
  Section 3 of 3          [00:34:00 - 00:50:56]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Female reporter: Did you talk to the kids, Mommy?

 

Neena Satija: Sandy tells Hilda that whenever she talks to her kids on the phone, they tell her they want to be with her. She asks if Hilda's been able to talk with them.

 

Female reporter: Yes, because on Friday they called. I spoke with one of the kids. He said, "Mommy, I want to leave here. I want to go with you."

 

Neena Satija: Sandy says it's not just her being punished. It's the children, too. When Sandy says this, Hilda looks like she's about to cry.

 

Female reporter: The truth, [Spanish 00:34:39], I don't have words for you. I understand you, as a mother.

 

Neena Satija: Sandy tells Hilda there's no one there to hug the baby, no one to make him feel the warmth of his mother.

 

Female reporter: Yes. That was something else the children complained about, that they don't let the kids hug the baby. Not the 12-year-old, eight-year-old or five-year-old. How is that possible that they don't let them hug each other? They are brothers. They have never been apart.

 

Neena Satija: What torments Sandy is that the baby is finally getting old enough to recognize people, but the only people he's seeing are strangers.

 

Female reporter: You have to have faith, my daughter, because it's the saddest thing for a mother to be separated from her children.

 

Female reporter: Okay, [Spanish 00:35:33], have a good night. We'll talk tomorrow, okay?

 

Female reporter: Okay, blessings, my queen.

 

Female reporter: Bye, my sweet girl.

 

Neena Satija: Hilda's got her own story to tell, one that connects to Sandy's. She says her family's been persecuted in Guatemala for generations. She lifts her shirt to show me a scar that runs across her stomach. Wow.

 

Neena Satija: It looks like she was cut in half and sewn back together. For years, she's avoided looking at it in the mirror.

 

Neena Satija: She tells me it's a reminder of when she was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. Hilda's family was in the military, during Guatemala's bloody civil war. She thinks that has a lot to do with why she and Sandy were targeted. It's Hilda who encouraged Sandy to ask for asylum and do everything legally. But now that Sandy are locked up and apart, Hilda says it feels like the whole asylum thing was a lie.

 

Neena Satija: I reached out to ICE and Customs and border protection, but they couldn't answer my question, why did the government take Sandy's kids this summer, when there's no evidence that she crossed the border illegally? And it wasn't just Sandy. Many parents who were never prosecuted for this were still separated from their kids. There are dozens of examples listed in a lawsuit against the government.

 

Female reporter: The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Trump administration over four separations of asylum-seeking families.

 

Neena Satija: The lawsuit was filed back in February, months before family separation was really in the news. The case is famous now. It's called Miss L. versus ICE. In court documents, the administration had to try to explain why it separated those parents, parents who hadn't been accused of entering the country illegally. Reading through, you can see the government's arguments shift. First, it says it separated the plaintiff and child, because it wasn't sure they were really related, but they were. That was proven by a DNA test. So then the government argues different reasons about why they needed to be separated.

 

Neena Satija: Those arguments weren't enough to persuade the court. The judge ruled that this type of family separation went beyond its lawful reach. In the end, I can't tell you why the government separated parents like Sandy. All I know for sure is wasn't about a crackdown on illegal immigration. It wasn't about the Trump administration enforcing the law, because many families didn't break it.

 

Male reporter: Last yesterday, this California judge, a Bush appointee, by the way, issued a nationwide injunction, ordering immigration agents to take several new steps. First ...

 

Neena Satija: In late June, the judge in that court case issued an injunction. Now there was a deadline, a ticking clock. The government would have to reunite families who had been separated, whether they crossed illegally or not. Kids would need to be back with their parents within 30 days. The youngest, even sooner.

 

Female reporter: The deadline to reunite the youngest migrant children with their families now less than a week away.

 

Neena Satija: Separating families was one thing, but could the government put them back together? It wasn't clear there was ever a plan for that. It was a massive logistical challenge. We're talking about thousands of children in shelters across the country, parents locked up thousands of miles away. How is this gonna happen?

 

Female reporter: There are reports of mass confusion surrounding this process. Joining us now is Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary. Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time this morning. There does seem to be a lot of confusion on this matter. What can you tell us this morning to clear some of that up?

 

Alex Azar: Absolutely. Thank you. First off, there's absolutely no confusion on our part. We have the kids, and we're working to comply with the court's order, and what that involves, you know, we ...

 

Neena Satija: The government says everything's fine, but with the deadline of July 10th just a few days away, we call Sandy's mom, Hilda.

 

Neena Satija: Hilda has no idea what's gonna happen next.

 

Neena Satija: Hilda tells me there's a lot of confusion. She's had trouble reaching Sandy in detention, and now she has to handle her documents proving she's related to the grandkids.

 

Neena Satija: Hilda doesn't know when or if Sandy will see the kids again, and if they're all back together, how would they get back to Hilda?

 

Hilda: [Spanish 00:40:20] Okay, bye-bye.

 

Neena Satija: A day before the deadline, the Trump administration admits it's not gonna make it. Maybe only half the youngest children will be reunited with their parents. Sandy's kids are at a shelter for migrant children in Phoenix, Arizona. It's run by a Texas-based company called Southwest Key. So I call up the company.

 

Neena Satija: Hi, is this Jeff?

 

Jeff Eller: Yeah.

 

Neena Satija: Hey, Jeff. My name's Neena Satija. I'm a reporter calling from the Texas Tribune. How are you?

 

Jeff Eller: Fine.

 

Neena Satija: That's Jeff Eller, a spokesperson for Southwest Key. Many of the kids separated at the border are staying at Southwest Key shelters.

 

Neena Satija: My interest is in whether Southwest Key has sort of developed a plan for reunifying these kids in Southwest Key shelters with their parents.

 

Jeff Eller: We're watching the court the same way you are and waiting to hear on the next steps from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

 

Neena Satija: Okay, so does that mean you all haven't heard any plans specifically from them?

 

Jeff Eller: I just said, we're waiting to hear on next steps from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

 

Neena Satija: I would imagine that you all would have liked to get some information about how those kids will be transported. That's just what I'm trying to figure out.

 

Jeff Eller: We're waiting ... I got nothing more than we're waiting on direction from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

 

Neena Satija: Without mentioning Sandy's name, I tell him about her case. I've just learned that she's been moved to a detention center near her kids in Phoenix.

 

Neena Satija: We actually know of one mother who's been transferred to an Arizona detention center. Her youngest child is in the Phoenix Southwest Key facility.

 

Neena Satija: I ask Jeff if he thinks they're gonna be reunited, but he gives me the same response.

 

Jeff Eller: We're waiting to hear our next steps from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

 

Neena Satija: Okay, so is it fair to say that that means you have not received any direction so far? That's what I want to make sure of.

 

Jeff Eller: Yeah. I'm not going down that path. We're waiting to hear from the Office ...

 

Neena Satija: I wanna know how this is gonna play out for Sandy. Tomorrow's the deadline. Will she get her baby son back? What about her other three kids? I decided to stay put so I can call my sources, work the phones to find out whatever I can. My colleague, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, heads to Phoenix to try and track down Sandy.

 

Anayansi: I get to Phoenix just after midnight on Tuesday, July 10th. Kids under five are supposed to be reunited today. That means Sandy should be back together with her six-month-old baby.

 

Anayansi: The first place I go is the shelter where all of Sandy's are being kept. It's early morning, and I'm on the sidewalk, right by the main entrance.

 

Anayansi: Okay, we're outside of Southwest Key. Okay. And I'm gonna go up to try to ask what is going on.

 

Anayansi: Hi there. How are you? I can't come in here? Do you guys have any inform-

 

Male: You're on private property right now.

 

Anayansi: Oh, I'm on private property, so I have to stay over there? Okay, thank you.

 

Anayansi: It's a bit of a mob scene. There are news vans, and I hear that kids are already being moved, maybe Sandy's kids, but there's no way to know.

 

Male reporter: You could see the line of children walk through a parking lot at this Phoenix shelter this morning, then some of them appear to get in a white van.

 

Anayansi: So I call Neena to check in.

 

Anayansi: Hey, Neena, are you crazy busy?

 

Neena Satija: No. Go ahead. What's up?

 

Anayansi: I give Neena my update and ask her what she knows.

 

Anayansi: And what's happening on your end?

 

Neena Satija: I'm at my desk and actually glued to the phone, trying to figure out how this reunification process is supposed to happen today for children under five.

 

Anayansi: Neena tells me she got a tip from an immigration lawyer. Sandy might be reunited with her kids at an ICE field office. It's called the Enforcement Removal and Operation Center, and it's at 2035 North Central Avenue.

 

Neena Satija: Yeah, then I'd say get out of there. Go to 2035 North Central.

 

Anayansi: Okay, perfect, Neena. All right, good luck. Call me if anything.

 

Anayansi: I drive 10 minutes to the ICE office, a sleek-looking building in the middle of the sprawl of downtown Phoenix. More news vans, of course. This is where the kids were dropped off.

 

Female reporter: Cameras caught white vans taking groups of children from Southwest Key facilities in the valley and dropping them off here. The Federal government is not expected to meet that deadline. In fact, at last check, only four of the 102 children have been reunited with their families.

 

Anayansi: Outside the building, there are more guards. They won't tell me anything, and they won't even let me park.

 

Anayansi: So there's an ICE police officer. He's waiting outside. He has a bullet-proof vest. There's a lovely food truck. Are we allowed to get food?

 

Anayansi: Hi there. Another question. Are we allowed to go to the food truck and get food?

 

Male officer: Yeah, of course. Yeah ...

 

Anayansi: I park near the food truck to get as close as I can.

 

Anayansi: Thank you.

 

Anayansi: Then I get a text from Neena that says based on recent government court filing, none of the four kids who were reunited with their parents so far would be Sandy's kid.

 

Anayansi: I spend an hour outside the office. No one knows what's happening. Officials aren't talked, and then ...

 

Anayansi: [Spanish 00:45:29], Hilda?

 

Anayansi: Finally, I hear from Sandy's mom, Hilda. She says she's barely slept, that Sandy is definitely getting out of immigration detention today.

 

Anayansi: [Spanish 00:45:44] Okay, okay. [Spanish 00:45:48]

 

Anayansi: I tell her, yes, I'm at the office where Sandy might be reunited with the kids, and then Hilda gives me a surprise.

 

Anayansi: She says, no, it's already happened. They're together now. Sandy is with her kids, but they're still in ICE custody. She tells me that kids were reunited early in the morning, but what's happened since, she doesn't know.

 

Anayansi: [Spanish 00:46:13], Hilda?

 

Anayansi: [Spanish 00:46:20], Hilda. Okay. [Spanish 00:46:23] Bye-bye.

 

Anayansi: When I talk to Hilda later that afternoon, she still doesn't know when Sandy and the kids will be allowed to leave. All she can tell me is they have bus tickets, a Greyhound from Phoenix to Los Angeles, leaving after midnight. I decide to head to Los Angeles, too, to see the whole family back together at Hilda's apartment, so I hit the road.

 

Anayansi: When I get to Hilda's, the blinds are open, the front door open wide. [Manchez 00:47:01] the dog is jumping on the three boys. Sandy's baby is sleeping in the corner. The only obvious sign of what they've just been through was the GPS monitor on Sandy's ankle and the circles under everyone's eyes. I ask about the journey from Phoenix. [Spanish 00:47:21], Sandy tells me. They waited for eight hours at the Greyhound station, then rode the bus all night long. At one point, the baby wakes up and is screaming. Sandy puts him on her hip. "Shh, shh, shh, shh," she whispers to him, as I fumble to turn on the recorder.

 

Anayansi: Test one, two, test, one, two.

 

Anayansi: We talk. [Spanish 00:47:42]

 

Anayansi: I ask her about the separation, about how she felt when she was in detention. [Spanish 00:47:51]

 

Anayansi: "Nothing but crying," she says. "So much crying, an inexplicable sadness, impossible to articulate." [Spanish 00:48:03]

 

Anayansi: I ask her to tell me how it feels to be with her kids again. She says, "It's something quite beautiful, after so much time being separated from them. It was something truly difficult. I'm at peace after all we've been through. Now it's time to move on," Sandy explains.

 

Anayansi: While I'm there, Sandy starts coughing up formula. She used to nurse him, breastfeed him, but her milk went dry when she was in detention. After all this, Sandy can't even feed her own kid anymore.

 

Anayansi: Sandy says, "Everything we've gone through was a terrible trauma." Then she adds, "I wanna forget it all."

 

Al Letson: That story was produced by Neena Satija, who co-reports for the Texas Tribune and Reveal's Anayansi Diaz-Cortes.

 

Al Letson: Sandy's lucky she was one of the first parents to be reunited with all her kids. There are still more than a hundred children who may never see their parents again because those parents have already been deported. For Sandy, an immigration judge has decided that she and her kids can remain in the U.S. for now. It could be years if she knows if she's allowed to stay.

 

Al Letson: Today's story was produced by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Neena Satija, and Casey Miner. Brett Myers edited the show with help from Ziva Branstetter. We had production support from Phoebe Petrovic, Rachel de Leon, Stan Alcorn, and Nadia Hamdan. Thanks also to Juan Luis Garcia Hernandez and Dave Harmon from the Texas Tribune. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, my man, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Christa Scharfenberg is our CEO. Our senior supervising editor is Taki Telonidis, and Kevin Sullivan is our Executive Producer. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Female: From PRX.

 

  Section 3 of 3          [00:34:00 - 00:50:56]