Detained immigrants describe treatment, anguish in letters


An Austin nonprofit published the letters to reveal the plight of immigrants detained in an area facility.

Asylum-seeking women describe the pain of being separated from their children.

In a letter recently made public to shed light on the lives of detained immigrants, an asylum-seeking mother held at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor laments the monthlong separation from her 12-year-old son.

Antonia and her son Deyvis — full names were redacted in all the letters — were separated May 31 at “las hieleras,” the ice boxes, a term used to describe border holding cells that are maintained at chilly temperatures. Antonia last spoke to Deyvis on June 20, her letter said, when he begged her to “get him out of that place.”

“I am afraid of thinking of how he’s doing because since day one, they’ve been treating us badly,” Antonia wrote in her two-page account, which was among 20 letters written by 16 asylum-seeking women detained at the facility in Taylor.

Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit that sends volunteers to visit women in the Taylor facility, obtained the letters, translated them from Spanish and published them online to offer a glimpse into life in detention. The accounts detail the women’s desire to reunite with their children and the treatment they allege they have received while in custody.

Grassroots Leadership spokeswoman Cristina Parker said the organization seeks to be “the eyes and ears” for those detained in the all-women facility.

“We want to make sure that we get out the stories of women who are detained,” Parker said. “We were seeing a big group of mothers coming in who’ve been separated.”

Nearly 3,000 children have been separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy requiring that all illegal border crossings be prosecuted.

Trump signed an executive order ending the separations June 20 after a widespread backlash, and a federal judge in late June ordered that about 100 children under age 5 be reunited with their parents by Tuesday, with all other families to be reunited by July 26.

Administration lawyers asked for additional time Friday, however, saying only about half of the children under 5 could be returned to a parent by the deadline.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of San Diego, who imposed the deadlines, plans to revisit the matter Monday.

Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, recently told reporters that entire families may remain in custody after reunification.

Many immigrant families from Central America say they are seeking asylum because it was too dangerous to remain in their home countries. Some of the letters from women held in the Taylor detention center mentioned such fears.

One letter writer, Mirian, said she left El Salvador with her 10-year-old son to escape threats and sexual assault from the country’s gangs, which she said kill many people without repercussions.

“I fled with my son to the U.S. because in El Salvador (the gangs) will look for you until they find you,” Mirian wrote. “I did not know about the new law that would separate children from their mothers, and as a mother I can tell you this is the hardest and most cruel thing a mother can feel.”

Antonia penned a second letter in which she discussed treatment inside the Taylor detention center, writing that detained women are treated “very badly” and their questions are answered “so angrily.”

“They’re humiliating us and I feel very bad,” Antonia wrote. “I only want you to bring me my son, and if they are going to deport me … then just do that, but with my son. I’m not leaving here without him.”

Antonia’s letter was the only one to complain about her treatment at the Taylor facility. Adelina Pruneda, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said she could not comment on Antonia’s statements without knowing more information, including the woman’s full name and alien registration number.

Other letters alleged mistreatment at unnamed facilities. Two women said they were kept in “ice boxes” during their detainment, another woman wrote that a guard threatened her with an “electric shock” when she begged to be reunited with her son, and a fourth woman — who is HIV-positive — said her medicine was taken and withheld from her while she was detained in the “dog kennel.”

Pruneda said those allegations needed to be addressed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, who could not be reached for comment.

The Grassroots Leadership website that publicized the women’s letters also offered a petition demanding that immigration officials release all separated mothers at the Taylor detention center and reunite them with their children. More than 800 people have signed the petition, Parker said Friday.

“We’re hoping that sharing their stories in their own words will apply pressure on public officials,” Parker said. “We just want them out and together with their children, not detained.”

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