Torn Apart: Separated at the Border (2019) - full transcript

Two mothers are separated from their children at the United States border for months after fleeing from danger in their homelands to seek asylum.

"No one leaves home unless home
is the mouth of a shark."

Warsan Shire, poet

In 2018, nearly 3 000 families
were separated

while seeking asylum
at the U.S. border.

This is the story
of two of these families.

I have put in place a zero tolerance
policy for illegal entry

on our southwest border.

If you cross the border unlawfully,
then we will prosecute you.

If you smuggle illegal aliens across
our border, then we will prosecute you.

Jeff Sessions,
U.S. Attorney General

If you are smuggling a child,
then we will prosecute you.

And that child may be separated
from you as required by law.

Maria has just been released from
an ICE detention center in Texas.

She has been separated from her son
for 70 days.

When I got to immigration,
I thought it was all over.

I thought my suffering would end.

The men in green treated us
very badly.

They apprehended us
with other Hondurans.

"Do you know your kids will be taken
away and you'll be detained ?"

"Is that true, Mommy ?"

"No, sweetie, it's only for a few days"

"until we leave for our destination,
while they gather all our information."

They put us in a very cold room.

I was just wearing this blouse
without a sweater or anything else.

I was shivering and crying.

My child wept night and day.

The next day they called my child
and they took him away.

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Back in my country I had problems.

People kill without fear,
without conscience.

People are left dead in the street.

I saw how two of my mother's brothers
were killed.

My son's father was killed.

My son was threatened
and he'd come back home crying.

I knew if I got him out of there,
he'd have a better future.

That's what forced me to leave,

to protect my son.

My son was sleeping with his shoes on

because I knew
they'd call his name soon.

And so they took him away.

Thank God he didn't see me
getting handcuffed.

Hands, waist, ankles, everything.

They took us out at 3 AM.

Then these officers poured
a disinfectant on us as if we had lice.

They made us strip in front of them.

They put us in the showers.

It was awful.

This was after 10 days on the road,
barely eating or sleeping.

We knew nothing about our kids.

All the mothers were crying.

Because they took our children away

and didn't care to tell us
where they were.

Maria's 10-year-old son Alex
was taken over 2 100 miles away,

to the Cayuga migrant
children's shelter in New York.

After 12 days we finally spoke
and he didn't sound well.

To anything I'd ask he'd answer:
"Yes, mommy, no, mommy."

That made my soul ache,
because I knew he wasn't well.

Four days. That's how much time
the Trump Administration has

to meet the court ordered deadline
to reunite 2 500 migrant children

with their parents,

after the same administration ripped
them from their families at the border.

As of Friday, the government
has returned only 450 children

between the ages of 5 and 17
to their families.

2 000 kids are still separated
from their parents.

Vilma was detained after fleeing
domestic abuse in Guatemala.

She has been separated from
her daughter for nearly 8 months.

On July 26,

when, supposedly, they were going
to return the children,

they took me out of Irwin.

They flew me to Port Isabel, Texas.

I was with 10 other women.

I was wondering if I'd be reunited
with my daughter. I kept waiting

while everyone else was running
to meet their kids.

They never called me.

They never told me
if I'd be reunited with my daughter.

Vilma's daughter Yeisvi was placed
in a foster home

over 2 000 miles away from her mother.

My mommy was trying to figure out
how we could come here

because my daddy hit my mommy

and I watched.

I had to watch everything my daddy
was doing to my mommy.

One Friday he stripped me.

I was left in my blouse.
He took my skirt off.

I was running in my underwear.

He would hit me here.
He would punch and kick me.

He would put something burning
in my eyes.

He even took me to a place
in the mountains to kill me

because I didn't give him
5 paychecks.

I was looking
and my mom was crying.

He took away my house keys.

I was left on the street.

My daddy locked the door.

I wanted something to eat.
But there was nothing.

In Guatemala
my life was very difficult.

Police doesn't exist over there.

If the police arrive,
it's just to pick up dead bodies.

A lot of women are killed.

I didn't have anywhere to go
with my baby.

I also didn't have money to pay rent

and my neighbors were afraid
to let me stay with them.

We couldn't live with our neighbor,
so we came here.

I was told:
"Your daughter is from the U.S."

"You can go there with her.
You know how to work."

Yeisvi was born in the U.S.
11 years ago,

when Vilma and her husband came
here as temporary farm workers.

I borrowed money to come here.

I came with a special person,

so that nothing would happen
to my daughter in Mexico,

because it's hard to cross
through Mexico.

Children are kidnapped.

I don't know how many days it took,

but we finally crossed the bridge
and we met a border agent.

Vilma and Yeisvi crossed the border

and Vilma's intention was to seek
protection under U.S. law

because of the violence that
she faced in her home country.

As soon as they encountered
U.S. authorities,

within 15 minutes she was told,

"your daughter can't be here,
your daughter's a U.S. citizen".

The government cannot detain
in immigration detention

a U.S. citizen child.

So they contacted the state of Arizona

and immediately brought in some folks
from the Child Protective System

to take Yeisvi into state custody
and put her into foster care.

They took away my mommy
and I cried.

So your agency will be separating
children from their parents ?

No. What we'll be doing is prosecuting
parents who have broken the law.

Just as we do every day
in the United States of America.

I can appreciate that. But if that
parent has a 4-year-old child,

what do you plan on doing
with that child ?

The child, under law, goes to HHS
for care and custody.

They will be separated
from their parent.

Just like what we do
in the United States every day.

It was Christmas
and my birthday, too

and I'm sad
because my mommy isn't with me.

I wanted to talk to my daughter,

but the officers wouldn't lend me
a phone.

A calling card costs
21 dollars in Irwin.

I asked for a job.

So I worked for 21 days earning
1 dollar a day.

After 21 days I bought a calling card
and managed to talk to my daughter.

I was happy when I spoke to her.

My mom told me: "Don't be sad,"

"be well behaved.
I love you so much, Yeisvi."

"Okay," I said.

When we got Vilma's case,

she had already been denied asylum
by an immigration judge in Atlanta,

and I should mention
that that's not very rare.

Only 2% of asylum claims
in Atlanta are granted

where in other courts it's 70%, 80%.

There's been no showing that the
respondent was targeted for harm.

It is hereby ordered the respondent's
application for asylum be denied

and the respondent be deported
to Guatemala.

The judge said: "You don't have
proof, documents, nothing."

"Go back to your country."

After Maria's release from detention,

she will fly across the country
to reunite with her son.

- Hello !
- Isaias, how are you ?

Good, good.

What are you up to ?
I arrive tomorrow.

- You arrive tomorrow ?
- Yes, tomorrow.

The lawyer is doing everything

to bring my boy the same day.

I can't believe I'm free
and will be there soon.

I need someone to pinch me
to see if this is real.

I didn't sleep much.

Every 30 minutes I checked the clock.
I got up at 2 AM to get ready.

I can't wait
to see my son again.

This bag has everything I own.

I only carry the documents given to me
when I was released and a Bible.

I don't have anything.
They took it all away.

Thank goodness
tomorrow I'll see my son.

I'll be with him and be able
to hug him again.

And be able to ask him for forgiveness

for our separation
because those weren't my plans.

Maria is greeted by friends
from her hometown in Honduras.

Kenia ! Hi !

Dear Isaias. blessings !
Thank you.

- Are you happy ?
- Yes, but where is my son ?

But you made it here.
That's what matters.

That's what matters.

- Hello ?
- Lawyer ?

- Hi, Maria, how are you ?
- Good and how are you ?

- Did you arrive ?
- Yes, but I'm still missing my son.

Yesterday I spoke with them.

It looks like it might not be
until Monday.

I'm pushing to get him out
as soon as possible.

I keep reaching out to them,
so they're aware of the situation.

Maria, are you still there ?


Are you okay ?

I thought I wouldn't have to wait
any longer.

I know.

I've struggled dealing
with the social worker

because he doesn't have kids
and he's a man.

Can you ask
if we can pick him up tomorrow ?

Of course. I've told him
you are willing to pick him up.

He already knows.

Just like you have done
your part working so hard

he should come through
to give me my son back.

I'm going to keep trying, okay ?

Of course, lawyer.
I thank you with all my heart.

My lawyer told me: "They will take
your daughter away."

"They won't give her back."

Vilma had been detained
for about 6 months at that time

and the state of Arizona was in legal
proceedings to deprive Vilma,

permanently, of her custody
over her daughter.

At those proceedings, the only reason

why Vilma's custody of her daughter
was even a question

was because she was detained

and therefore was unable
to take care of her daughter.

Vilma was granted
a new asylum hearing,

but ICE refused to release her
from detention.

And I told my lawyer: "I'm going
to fight for my life with my daughter."

"That's why I need to keep going."

When we submitted a humanitarian
parole petition to ICE,

they denied that
with no rationale other than

"she is an extreme flight risk".

She's not a flight risk because, first
of all, she has an asylum claim

that she wants to pursue
in court here.

She has a U.S. citizen daughter

whom she wants to raise in the United
States where she can be safe.

So we filed litigation
in multiple jurisdictions.

We ultimately ended up pursuing
a media strategy.

Right now, there is a growing call
for the U.S. government to reunite

a mother and daughter
who have not seen each other

for more than 7 months.

ICE is the organization that controls
her detention center.

We can call on our politicians

and demand that Vilma be reunited
with her daughter.

My mind was all over the place.

It was really sad.

Since you arrived and you were
separated, how have you felt ?

This was my worst nightmare.

Honestly I've blocked it
out of my life.

All I care about is getting my son back

to know that my life
is complete again.

Maria had to wait 3 days before
she could pick up her son, Alex.

Mr. Diego.
We're here, but can't find parking.

Can you bring out my boy ?

My love.

Such joy to be with mommy again.

Did you miss me ?
Of course, me too !

I kept asking: "When will I see
my son again ?"

It felt like an eternity, my love.
Every day felt like a year.

Are you happy, my love ?

Come here, baby !
I missed you so much !

I thought I'd never get
to see you play again, my love.

We are together again.
They won't separate us. No more.

When you are older,
it'll be different.

But while you are still a kid,
I'll be with you.

Even when I'm big,
I want to be with you.

We're not going
to be separated again.

I want to go to my new home.

How many days were you in there ?

I was there for 60 something days.

Did you cry when your mom called ?
But why ?

I cried every time my mom called.

What were you feeling, love ?

That they were going
to separate us forever.

That's impossible. I would have gone
to the ends of the world.

No, son.

Kenia, Kenneth, Ariana and I
are your family.

We don't see you as a burden.

It's a blessing to be together.

I believe it's a gift
that you are with us.

You are welcomed.

Can I give you a hug ?

- Welcome.
- Thank you.

You have to be good.
And get up early to go to school.

Look, darling.

Smell it and see if you like it.

- I'm going to put some on too.
- Yes, you can also wear some.

Spray it on your arm to see
if you like it.

I'd like a photo.

It smells good.

To send to Aunt Leidy.

The guard said:
"Vilma, you'll be released."

"You are going to see your baby. "

I said: "My baby ?"
He said: "Yes !"

They took me to the airport
in Atlanta.

After 246 days,

Vilma was unexpectedly released
from ICE detention in Georgia.

She had to travel to Arizona, where
her daughter was in foster care.

- Welcome !
- Hello !

The custody case against Vilma was
dropped when she was released.

I couldn't believe the news
when my lawyer told me yesterday.

I said: "My God, is that true ?"

Because I've been asking God
to stay in the U.S.

and save my daughter's life.

Don't cry, my love,
I'm with you now.

I'm never going to leave you.

You are safe now, my love.
We're not going back to Guatemala.

I swear, I won't let anything bad
happen to you

Yes, my love.

Thank God we're alive and well.

I'll never leave you.

Are you going to be happy with me ?
Can you forgive me ?

I don't want you to go back
to Guatemala.

No, my love, don't worry.
I won't go back to Guatemala.

Look ! Santa Claus gave you earrings !

I got them
because my ears are pierced now.

You didn't have them pierced.

You didn't speak very well
back home.

Now teach me English.

You'll have to teach me, because
you're the one going to school.

One, two, three, four, five,

six, seven, eight, nine, ten,

eleven, twelve.
Just that for now.

I'm finally happy with my mommy.

You're happy with your mommy.

A local family volunteers
to host Vilma and Yeisvi temporarily.

I can get down by myself, mommy.

I still think you're little.

- Welcome !
- Thank you for everything.

- You're welcome.
- Thank you, you saved me.

- Welcome !
- Thank you.

- Welcome !
- Come on in.

- Thank you.
- Welcome.

Thank you.

What a beautiful house.
Don't cry, my love.

Don't cry, don't cry, my love.

I'm with you now. Don't cry.

- Say thank you.
- You're welcome.

Thank you.

I love only you, my Lord.

I love only you, my Lord.

I love only you, my Lord.

And never look back.

- Are you happy ?
- Yes.

- You want me here with you ?
- Yes.

- I love you very much.
- Me too.

- Tea for Princess Yeisvi.
- Thank you.

My daughter was very traumatized
in Guatemala.

Back there she didn't know
how to speak well.

- Hi !
- Hi !

How are you ?

I'm good, my friend.

I spoke, but only a little bit.

Because I was seeing what
was happening to my mommy,

so my head hurt in Guatemala.

Now my head doesn't hurt
because I'm here.

Vilma, my parents are immigrants too.

My mom fled her country
a long time ago.

That's good.
Thank you for helping us.

Vilma, I could never imagine being
away from Elika for 8 months.

It was very difficult
to be incarcerated.

Many kids were left
without their parents.

You're a very strong woman.
Very strong.

Vilma, your spirit is of a warrior.

You're an inspiration. Always.

Thank you.

Let's eat, love.
It's time for breakfast.

Mom, what will happen
with the lawyers today ?

I don't know, my love.
We're just going to introduce ourselves

so he can start working on the case.
We'll see what happens.

Anything he asks
you know why we are here.

Always answer with the truth.

Let's go. It's so cold !

It's unbelievably cold.

What worries me is how this
has affected my son.

I think he's been through a lot.

Maybe it's not visible.
But emotionally, in his heart,

what effect did this experience have
at his young age ?

It was worth it to come here
because here I'll be safe.

Back home, no one does anything
if two kids get into a fight.

Some kids killed each other fighting.

I'm proud that I was able
to get him out at a young age.

Look, this was the day we left.
Do you remember ?

I took this picture with your cousins.

Look, my dad's party ! When we took
a photo of him with all the kids.

It was his birthday.
And this one ?

My dad !

You were so tiny.

If Alex's dad hadn't been killed,
I would've stayed there.

I had no reason to flee.

I don't know if I'll be able
to return one day.

Will I be granted asylum or not ?

What if I don't get it ?
Where will I go ?

It's really hard.
But my son is my hope and my strength.

I've learned that life has good
and bad things.

And that life is different
from what we imagine it to be.

I've achieved my dreams
by giving my son a better option.

That compensates for all the pain
and sadness.

Now 24 times 18.

Write your numbers clearly.

My dream is to see him succeed here.

I'm going to fight until I see this
with my own eyes.

Vilma moved to rural Georgia
to stay with her brother's family.

Georgia has one of the highest asylum
denial rates in the country.

They're all also getting ready.
You have to be good in school.

You have to pay attention
so you learn.

Be smart.

All right.

My brother will be like a father
to my daughter.

Because he loves my daughter
and my daughter loves him too.

- All set, kids ?
- Yes.

Let's pray.

Dear Lord, thank you
for this beautiful morning.

Thank you for your love.
Thank you for being kind.

I entrust Sharon, Emanuel
and Yeisvi in your hands.

Help them, Lord, to stay
on a good path. Amen.

Okay, you can get out.

I see that my daughter needs
a psychologist,

because she's always thinking
about what we went through

when I was imprisoned,
when we were separated.

I think she's going to be taken away

and I don't want to be left alone here.

Because my mommy is now with me

and I'm always thinking
she's going to be taken away.

I feel a lot of pain for her.
I tell her to be patient.

It's how life is in this country.


Alright, I'll quiz you.
How do you say lunes in English ?

- Monday.
- Martes ?

Tuesday ?

To be honest, I'm scared
of returning to Guatemala.

My husband is still after me.

He threatened my mother.

I hope God will touch ICE's heart,

so I'm given permission
to stay in this country.

That's what worries me especially
because of my next court date.

I hope I can get a place just for me
and my daughter

so she doesn't suffer anymore,
to keep my daughter away from harm.

Because it's for the love
of my daughter that I'm here.

In 2018, the U.S. granted asylum
in 35% of cases.

This is a decrease from 58% in 2012.

Vilma and Maria both await
asylum hearings.

Families detained at the border in 2018
were separated

for an average of 3 months
and some have yet to be reunited.

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