Do You Risk Losing Your Kids at the Border, or Face Death Threats Back Home?

2 min
Elizabet holds her one-year-old son in a family member's living room in Mexico as she and her husband and three children prepared to request asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

A Mexican woman held in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody for six days beginning in late June described poor conditions and warnings that her children could be taken from her at the Calexico West Port of Entry -- two hours east of San Diego -- where she was detained with other migrant families waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. The warnings came more than a week after President Trump signed an executive order ending family separations.

Thirty-year-old Elizabet, her husband and their three children -- ages 1, 5 and 9 -- fled their home in the Mexican state of Michoacán earlier this summer after criminals murdered her brother and later threatened to kill her, too. KQED is not disclosing the family’s full names because they fear criminal groups could trace them to their current location in Mexico.

Elizabet and her family approached CBP officers at the port of entry in Mexicali on June 28 and asked for asylum. Elizabet said the family was then taken in for processing. She and her children were housed in a large room with other women and children. Most were also seeking asylum.

According to Elizabet, she and her children were fed spaghetti with meatballs that smelled “horrible,” and bread so stale that it couldn’t be stabbed with a fork. She said detainees slept on bug-infested mats on the floor and were allowed only one blanket per person, despite bitter temperatures due to the air conditioner blasting cold air throughout the day and night.

Elizabet said her children got diarrhea from eating the food they received. She said she saw another child who appeared to have a skin irritation around his groin and abdomen. One mother asked officers to turn down the air conditioning because the children had sore throats, but the officer declined.

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She also said CBP officers told the women that if they moved forward with their asylum claims, they would likely be sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, possibly without their children, for a year or more.

One day, she said, agents came in and told a woman whose husband had been kidnapped, back in Mexico, that her 7-year-old son was being sent to a shelter -- without her.

"The woman and her son were crying. She was telling them, ‘Don’t take us, I’ll sign whatever you want.' "

Elizabet’s five and nine-year-old sons’ shoes. The boys repeatedly told their mother they were hungry while in Customs and Border Protection custody at the Calexico West border facility.
Elizabet’s five and nine-year-old sons’ shoes. The boys repeatedly told their mother they were hungry while in Customs and Border Protection custody at the Calexico West border facility. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

Elizabet said the mother and son were taken away, but she doesn’t know where. This was nearly two weeks after President Trump signed an executive order on June 20 ending family separation.

A spokeswoman for CBP told KQED that the woman that Elizabet described was transported to an ICE facility with her son. She added that minors are separated from adults when the children are at risk, and when the agency is unable to prove family ties.

'What do you want? Dead kids or skinny kids?'

The conditions Elizabet described echo a report filed in federal court in Los Angeles this week that includes statements from some 200 detained children and parents. The individuals interviewed describe inadequate food, a lack of clean water and frigid temperatures at immigration detention facilities along the border.

Elizabet said her children weren’t getting enough food in detention and they started to lose weight. She asked a CBP officer for solid food for her 1-year-old, who'd had only baby formula.

Elizabet said the officer replied, “This isn’t a seven-star hotel. What do you want? Dead kids or skinny kids?”

Elizabet said she had heard stories of family separation, but they weren’t enough to deter her from asking for asylum.

"I'm more scared of staying here [in Mexico] and risking that they do something to me or kill one of my kids," she told a KQED reporter before requesting asylum. "If they’re going to separate us, we’ll be safer over there than here."

Elizabet’s husband and her two older sons wait in a family member’s living room in Mexico while they get ready to ask U.S. officials for asylum at the border.
Elizabet’s husband and her two older sons wait in a family member’s living room in Mexico while they get ready to ask U.S. officials for asylum at the border. (Alexandra Hall/KQED)

On the family’s fifth night in CBP custody, Elizabet said her 5-year-old son peed in his pants from the cold. In the morning, she gave up and voluntarily withdrew her application for asylum.

She said an officer gave her a blank piece of paper, not an official form, and told her to write down why she had chosen to withdraw her asylum claim.

In response to KQED’s questions about conditions inside the Calexico port of entry, a CBP spokeswoman sent a government inspector’s report showing that such federal facilities meet the required standards for detaining immigrant children, adding that the agency “maintains a high standard of care for individuals in its custody.”

The spokeswoman also said that it’s rare for asylum applicants to withdraw their claims. But Elizabet said that of the nine other mothers held alongside her, six or seven gave up their asylum claims, too.

“It’s very difficult, as a mother, to see your kids go through that,” Elizabet said.

“If this is what happened to them in six days, imagine what could happen if they were locked up for a year or two? They could die,” she said.