Last October, if you drove south of El Paso along the Texas border, past the cotton fields and strip malls and into the dry desert, you’d find lines of teens in grey sweatsuits marching around tents they called home.
Most of them hailed from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Many were unaccompanied minors detained at Tornillo, the largest migrant facility in the country (which has since closed). Officials with walkie talkies roamed the camp. The names of tents followed the alphabet — Alfa, Bravo, Charlie — and the children were always marching.
During my second year of law school, I had a rare opportunity: I interviewed some of these children for a project with Professor Binford. Assisting a select team of attorneys, doctors and translators, I helped determine whether the youths’ needs were being met at the facility under the standards of the Flores settlement. I was the only student on the team.
Paired with longtime immigration attorney Hope Frye and a representative from Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, I sat in on interviews and translated questions. I also supported the office hub for our team, assisting attorneys with getting declarations printed and signed.
At that point in time, 1,024 children were detained there on what was supposed to be a temporary basis; one child had been there 137 days. Of the dozens of youth my team assessed, I helped interview four to five kids aged 13–16. I am fluent in Spanish and I am partly deaf, so I translated what they said by connecting a Bluetooth microphone to my hearing aid and held it like a microphone, interview-style.
During the trip, I was overcome with anxiety because it triggered memories of my own family separation. In 2014, my two young children and I left Mexico City, where my husband had just finished graduate school. I needed to find work in the United States while he stayed to await his visa, which an immigration lawyer told us would take about six months to process.
We waited one year and 52 days.
That first year, I lost weight because I was too busy to eat. My children — ages 6 months and 4 years — were frequently sick. Money was a constant worry; although I’d found full-time work as a legal secretary, I grew anxious about being fired for all of the sick time I needed to take. The uncertainty and anxiety of not knowing when our family would be together again took a severe toll on us.
I’ve never felt so powerless in my life, waiting for a little piece of green plastic to unite our family again. So when I read about family separations in the news, I couldn’t simply sit back and watch. In late June 2018, I reached out to Professor Binford to see if I could help.
We had briefly been in contact once before. Through her vast network of contacts, she had actually provided me the means to do an externship at the Institute for Women in Migration in Mexico City, even though we didn’t know each other that well. I was so grateful. Besides providing an invaluable academic experience, the externship also meant I could return to the country for the first time since we moved. It was priceless to surprise my mother-in-law with my husband and our two children.
At Tornillo, the work was also useful for my future as an immigration attorney — it has been the most meaningful yet difficult work of my law school experience. It also reinforced what I already knew: families belong together.