‘I’m hoping that the United States will help me, help my family because all we want is to live together.’ Photograph: Sam Morris/Getty
“Many of them break down, crying halfway through the interview,” he said. “A father told me that if he’s deported without his son, his son is going to die of sadness. I was holding back tears when he told me that.”
On Thursday, there was mixed evidence that Trump’s executive order to end the separations had taken full effect. While federal prosecutors in McAllen dismissed charges against 17 parents who had been separated from their children, their counterparts, 59 miles away in Brownsville, exercised no such discretion.
Jenifer Johana Fuentes-Maradiaga, 18, stood before Judge Ignacio Torteya III as the court heard how she had been separated from her 14-year-old brother. They travelled together from Guatemala, but had been apprehended by customs officials two days before and she had not seen him since. She was prosecuted and pleaded guilty.
These mass plea hearings, like in McAllen, occur on a rigid timetable. At 10am every morning in Brownsville about 50 migrants are led into court, shackled at the ankles, handcuffed and chained across their backs. Court sources told the Guardian that about five each day are separated parents.
En masse, the defendants are asked to raise their right hands – impossible given the restraints they are in– and promise to tell the truth. Almost all of them plead guilty.
On Tuesday, just hours before the Trump administration withdrew from the UN human rights council, Ramón Villata, a migrant from El Salvador begged Judge Torteya to reunite him with his two-year-old son Milton.
“I want to be with my family again,” he told the judge as pounding rain outside led to flash flooding across the Rio Grande valley. “For the way they separated us, I want to be reunited again. That is all.”
Although the court had instructed lawyers for the government to locate the boy, Judge Torteya was not able to offer any guarantees. “Hopefully the authorities will reunite you with your family as soon as possible,” he told Villata, before the defendant, who had pled guilty and was sentenced to time served, was led out of court.
Advocates now fear that the Trump administration’s alternative to family separation may be equally harsh. The justice department has launched a bid to alter a federal court settlement that limits the time migrant families can be detained together, in a bid to usher in an era of indefinite family detention.
This harsh model of deterrence has been implemented by the Australian government during a crackdown on asylum seekers entering the country by boat. It has been described as institutional torture by the country’s former chief immigration psychologist.
But hardline punitive measures like these are unlikely to dissuade desperate asylum seekers, fleeing some of the world’s most violent communities in Central America, from making the journey.
At the Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen, groups of families recently released from detention come together for a meal before they are dispatched to locations around the country to reunite with family living in the US.
Juan Carlos, a 29-year-old Guatemalan who did not want to give his last name, said he knew about the zero-tolerance policy before he fled with his seven-year-old daughter, Karla, earlier in June.
“It was a risk,” he admitted. “But life is hard anyway.”
Juan Carlos had begged customs officials to stay with Karla after they were apprehended, and the pair stayed in a windowless detention centre for a week before they were released together, without criminal charges being filed. “It was so difficult, but I had faith in God,” he said, pointing to the Bible he keeps in a small pouch.
Karla, clutching a Minnie Mouse doll dressed in a pink polka dot skirt, beamed.
“She wanted to study in an American school,” said Juan Carlos. “She watches Disney cartoons and dreams about being in America.”
He kissed her on the cheek. Their bus to New York was to depart in a few hours.
*Some names in this article have been changed to protect identities