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Between May 5 and June 9, 2018, the United States Department of Homeland Security separated 2,342 children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. They have classified these minors as “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” and sent them to shelters in fifteen different states.  Despite an Executive Order signed on Tuesday ending this unfathomably cruel practice going forward, these children remain separated from their parents. At this moment, there is no system in place to reunite families, except a handout with instructions to call the Immigration and Customs Enforcement hotline for further information.  

As desperate parents and lawyers try to navigate the bureaucratic and logistical nightmare in order to retrieve these children, some are also fighting for the rights of these young people. An article recently published by ProPublica shares the exceptional story of six-year-old Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid. The article includes a link to a chilling recording obtained from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility, in which separated children can be heard crying and pleading for their parents. It is difficult to listen to, especially as the detached and unemotional voice of a Customs and Border Patrol agent asks the children where they are from. Jimena’s voice is heard on this recording, demanding to make a phone call to her aunt in Houston; Jimena had memorized her aunt’s phone number before crossing the border. Jimena, who was fleeing gang violence in El Salvador with her mother, is one of only a few children who has been able to contact a family member in the United States, increasing the likelihood of a reunion.

In the stirring piece “For a 6-Year-Old Snared in the Immigration Maze, a Memorized Phone Number Proves a Lifeline,” journalist Ginger Thompson describes Jimena’s ordeal:

Memorizing her aunt’s phone number gave Jimena a huge advantage over many of the immigrant children who are illegally brought across the border by their families, and who are not old enough to speak, count, or even know their parents’ full names. Central American consular workers and child advocates report that, under zero tolerance, once children have been physically separated from their parents, their legal cases have been bureaucratically separated as well. The children have been treated like unaccompanied minors, even as their relatives were shipped to other U.S. detention centers. Now that the policy of separating families appears to have ended, the burden of the reunification will depend in large measure on the children’s abilities to provide information that will help authorities identify who, and where, their parents are.

The audio provided to ProPublica last week shows how difficult that will be. In it, nearly a dozen Central American children between the ages of four and 10 wail inconsolably. Consular officials struggle to get the children to stop crying long enough to tell them where they came from, and whether they came with their mothers or their fathers. The children are so distraught, they sound as if they can barely breathe. And they scream “Mami” and “Papá” as if those are the only words they know.

Amid the chaos, Jimena is heard, asking in full sentences for authorities to help her call her aunt. When they do not respond, she presses her point: “My mommy says that I’ll go with my aunt, and that she will come to pick me up there as quickly as possible so I can go with her.”

In an interview with Thompson, Jimena’s aunt says that “she’s become the voice for all the children in that situation.” We must ensure these voices are not lost in a bureaucratic maze intent on dehumanizing individuals fleeing from strife and persecution. Read the full ProPublica piece here.

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