Visiting the epicenter: what I witnessed while covering the family separation saga

by Jenny Manrique

North Texas Catholic special contributor

October 12, 2018

Javier, a 30-year-old immigrant from Honduras, cries as he holds his 4-year-old son, William, July 11 in New York when they were reunited after being separated for 55 days during detention at the Texas border. (CNS photo/Lucas Jackson, Reuters) 

Mr. Cruz looks straight into the cellphone camera. Tired but happy, he still seems a little bewildered.

Just a couple of hours before I started interviewing him from Dallas, he was reunited with his 5-year-old son, Edwin. The boy is jumping on the couch behind him. Both are in the lobby of a hotel in McAllen. They spent more than two months apart. Now they are together thanks to the work of several volunteers.

I first heard about Mr. Cruz’s case when I traveled to the border in mid-June to cover this unfolding national drama for The Dallas Morning News. The Cruzes were some of the first to be caught in the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which sought to prosecute anyone who crosses the border illegally. The policy separated more than 2,500 families.

By Aug. 10, more than 1,992 had been reunited after a judge in California ordered the government to keep them together.

As of Aug. 9, 559 children remained separated from their parents or loved ones. Up-to-date information on more than 100 tender-age children (under the age of five) was unavailable as of press time.

The Cruzes were among the “lucky” ones. They were escaping from the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) gang’s violence in San Miguel, El Salvador, and crossed the border between Reynosa and Texas in May, looking for asylum. Once Cruz turned himself in to immigration authorities, a Border Patrol officer took Edwin from his arms. “Be a man,” the agent said to Cruz. 

“The mareros (gang members) force you to give them money, they threaten you. It is hell,” Cruz said about the violence in his village through the FaceTime call with Dalila Reynoso. She is a grassroots activist — one of the many good-hearted people I met on the border — who works with the East Texas group Justice for Our Neighbors. She is not only helping me track this story, she raised money to reunite Cruz with Edwin, who was in a New York shelter run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Once father and son reunited in McAllen, Reynoso traveled with them to Washington, D.C., to meet Cruz’s sister and aunt. The women and the men hugged each other strongly, as if trying to erase more than a decade of distance and the suffering of the previous months.

“I spent 35 days in the Rio Grande [Detention Center] and then I was transferred to Port Isabel [Center],” Cruz said. “I wrote letters to ICE, begged for calls to my [son’s] guardians, and even worked for $1 a day [collecting] trash [at Port Isabel] just to talk to anyone who might help me.” 

I wanted to know everything about them. How their detention places were. What they ate. How they slept. How they were treated. How the father could track his son. If they were DNA tested. Both broke into tears when I asked a painful but necessary question: “How did you feel all this time without knowing about each other?”

“Señorita,” Mr. Cruz sighed, “I cried bitterly. It was the most horrible time of my life.”

The child, who was looking curiously through the screen, simply hugged his father and sobbed. I felt sorry and impudent. “But the good thing is you are together, right?” I asked instinctively to ease the conversation. 

I am a reporter who has covered social justice issues in my native Colombia for more than a decade. I have interviewed victims, activists, rural leaders, as well as perpetrators, politicians, and people in power. I have reported on different borders in Latin America: Colombia-Venezuela, Brazil-Peru, Argentina-Bolivia, and so on. And still nothing prepared me for the humanitarian crisis I saw in McAllen: an epicenter of good and evil.  

I rushed to McAllen following a caravan of Dallas activists and faith leaders who traveled there to visit the ‘baby shelters’ and children detention centers. Since they were denied access, the advocates protested in front of the U.S. Border Patrol Processing Center (the Ursula Center), where families are processed and held in different cells. It is the country’s largest immigration processing facility and was the hotbed of the family separation saga. If you saw the now-familiar images of young migrants and children in cages, this is one of the facilities where that happened. Here, 1,174 children were separated from their parents.

A bus carrying immigrant children left the facility, and protesters blocked it, chanting “set them free.” The tiny hands of the children pressed against the tinted windows, and their faces look stunned, not understanding what was going on. Border agents dispersed the crowd. 

Those images stuck with me, as well as the faces of the many immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras whom I interviewed during this coverage. The intensity of what I witnessed hit me hard when I was back in Dallas. The anguish of mothers, to whom I offered words of comfort; the confusion of fathers who spoke just indigenous words I couldn’t help translate; babies, young children, and pregnant women shedding tears. Vivid details lost in the hectic pace of reporting. 

A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection is executing the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

I spent time in the criminal court, where the newcomers who crossed the border are brought shackled in metal chains at the waist, ankles, and wrists for mass trials. Still wearing dirty and ripped clothes from the journey they started thousands of miles away, every one of them pleaded guilty of illegal crossing. Some of them asked for their kids. Others simply tried to keep awake during the long hearing, while border patrol officers poked them brusquely. Deportation was the next step. 

Right across the street from this glassy courthouse, the contrast of the scene couldn’t be greater. Sister Norma Pimentel, the 64-year-old who runs the now well-known Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center in the heart of McAllen, received immigrants with a big smile and a warm hug. 

Those who end up at her shelter — at the rate of about 100 a day — are released from federal facilities because they enter the civil immigration system and can file for asylum. They are assisted by volunteers from across the country who poured into South Texas to help with everything from carrying babies while moms take showers, to serving soup and providing words of solace. Even, for some, in broken Spanish.

Icons of St. Toribio Romo of Mexico and Blessed Oscar Romero of El Salvador are displayed in the cafeteria, seemingly watching over the tired refuge-seekers.

The center houses a storage area for supplies donated by generous Texas residents such as diapers, baby wipes, toys, coloring books, shoes, clothes, hygiene products, water, and nonperishable food. In an improvised infirmary, volunteers attend kids who are dehydrated or suffering from high fevers after leaving the Border Patrol Processing Center, also known as the Icebox. On hand, volunteers have over-the-counter medications, electrolytes, and remedies for cough and flu symptoms — but those are limited.

“People respond spontaneously out of the goodness of their hearts to the situations they see people living,” Brownsville Bishop Daniel Flores said to me between Masses at St. Joseph Parish. “And they respond with courage,” added the 56-year-old bishop dressed in his ornate gold and burgundy vestments.

After covering the immigrant community for decades, I deeply respect the work the Catholic Church has been doing in places where displacement and violence are the rule. McAllen was not an exception. Priests, nuns, and other faithful Catholics are the brave front-liners in the midst of this saga. 

In this deeply religious southern border, Sister Norma, Bishop Flores, and others — like Father Alfonso Guevara, a leader for Valley Interfaith — are well known for their defense of immigrants. They have opened the doors of churches as refuge and keep the Central Americans in their sermons and prayers. 

Weekends at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle are pure joy: nine Masses are celebrated with a Mariachi choir while the priests read Bible passages in Spanish. Immigrants grip their Rosaries, one of the many treasures they received from Catholic Charities. 

After the liturgy, more volunteers assist the families with the purchase of bus tickets to their next destination — cities where they have relatives or sponsors and where their first court hearing will take place. The immigrants carry manila envelopes with an instruction on the outside: “Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I need to take?”

“After the many days I prayed for this nightmare to end,” Cruz said, “I am very thankful for all the help I received.” 

He is now in Virginia looking for a pro bono lawyer to help him fight his case. He misses his wife and his other two children, a six-month-old and nine-year-old, whom he left behind in El Salvador. “I was planning to bring them here,” he said in a broken voice.

“But I won’t expose them to what happened to me. Children shouldn’t be apart from their parents. Not even for one second.”

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Jenny Manrique is a bilingual multimedia news reporter for Al Dia and The Dallas Morning News, where she covers immigration and the Latino community. 


Mr. Cruz looks straight into the cellphone camera. Tired but happy, he still seems a little bewildered.

Published (until 10/12/2035)