On an unusually muggy night in August 2017, a Brazilian woman and her fourteen-year-old son crossed into the United States just west of El Paso, in the northern part of the vast Chihuahuan Desert. They were quickly apprehended by Border Patrol. If they had crossed almost anywhere else along the U.S.-Mexico border, or at any other time, they might have stayed together while an immigration judge decided whether they would be deported. But Jocelyn and James (their last name is not being used because they have applied for asylum and are fearful for their safety) entered in Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which was then secretly testing a new border security tactic being pushed by some in the Trump administration: the forcible separation of immigrant children from their parents, which they believed would send a message to other would-be border crossers.
When Border Patrol agents came to their holding cell to tell Jocelyn they were taking her son, she struggled for words. “She wouldn’t say much because she cried most of the time,” James said. “So she just said goodbye the last time we were together at the prison and said to take all my stuff because she didn’t know what was going to happen to her. I was scared because I didn’t know what was happening—what was going to happen.”
Key voices have been missing from the debate about family separation in recent weeks: the more than two thousand children taken from their parents. James broke that silence Thursday in El Paso, in what may be the first in-depth interview with a child taken from a parent by Border Patrol. Until this week, Jocelyn prevented the media from talking to James. But the teenager was eager to tell his story, and Jocelyn relented.
James told Texas Monthly of the fear and anxiety that gripped him during the nine months that he was kept from his mother. He described being taken by U.S. border agents and staying in two child detention facilities more than a thousand miles away from her. Mostly, he spoke candidly and with little emotion, but at times he seemed to hold back painful memories, nervously cracking his knuckles as he considered questions that made him uncomfortable.
James, more than six feet tall, turns fifteen in two weeks. During the interview, he spoke mostly in Spanish but occasionally in English, two languages the native Portuguese speaker picked up while being held in detention and unable to leave. A few hours after the interview, Jocelyn and James flew from El Paso to Washington, D.C., where they will attend the Families Belong Together march and rally on Saturday across from the White House. Jocelyn is scheduled to be one of the featured speakers at the rally protesting the Trump administration’s family separation practice, which they have since walked back, and its slow response in reuniting children with their parents. She is one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit that led a San Diego federal judge this week to order the government to return all children taken at the border to their parents within thirty days.
After being taken from their parents, James and three other boys were placed on a bus and held for about a day and a half at an unidentified Border Patrol station nearby. “It was awful, because I didn’t know where I was going or what was going to happen to us,” James said. The boys were driven to El Paso International Airport and put on a plane to Chicago, where they were placed in a shelter operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that has been handling “unaccompanied alien children” who arrived at the border without an adult.
When he arrived in Chicago, James was initially kept in a two-story building with a basement. The other boys around him—he said there were hundreds—were from South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India (James said he learned to curse in Hindi). James was there for about three months. “I was mad there,” he said. “I was out of control because I almost didn’t talk to my mom at all. It took two months to know what was happening. Two months without knowing what happened to my mom, if she had gone back to Brazil. What had happened?” He finally got a call from his mother sometime in October. “It was emotional. I don’t know the right word. It was good because I got to know a little about what was happening and where was my mom and all that.”
Jocelyn has told the story of her separation from her son several times since they were reunited earlier this month: on August 26, Jocelyn fled what she said was an abusive spouse and took James with her. Jocelyn left an older daughter with her mother in Brazil, and flew with James to Ciudad Juárez. The two then walked across the border near Santa Teresa, New Mexico, just across the state line from El Paso. When they were apprehended, Jocelyn told agents she wanted to seek asylum in the United States because she feared she would be injured or killed if they returned to Brazil.
James and Jocelyn being reunited at the El Paso airport on June 5.
At that moment, Jocelyn and James became among the first test cases of something that would be revealed months later: a “zero tolerance” policy in which the administration promised to file criminal charges against all adults caught entering the country illegally. But under a 1997 agreement that the Clinton administration reached with federal courts, children could not be kept in immigration detention, which meant that under the policy, families would be separated, although Attorney General Jeff Sessions later publicly said the separation policy was also being used as a deterrent. Migrant rights groups said border officials repeatedly denied last year that they were separating families in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which covers far West Texas and all of New Mexico. But when it announced the “zero tolerance” policy this spring, the Trump administration revealed that the El Paso sector was its experimental site last summer and fall.
Jocelyn had been jailed for 27 days before pleading guilty to a misdemeanor illegal entry charge in September (most of the criminal prosecution cases against the immigrants under the zero-tolerance policy have been for misdemeanor charges). She was sentenced to time served and transferred to the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement pending her asylum and deportation court proceedings. It was only after that month in jail and month in detention that she was able to call James. It would still take seven more months for them to reunite.
James, meanwhile, was transferred in November to another ORR shelter in Chicago, a two-story house on a large estate that was populated almost entirely by Central Americans. He didn’t say how many kids were housed there. James said the security was more intense at his new shelter, with little privacy for the boys staying there. Each room had three beds, a mirror, a box to hold clothes, and a small desk. The boys attended classes and were fed what James considered inadequate food portions. They also had to follow a number of isolating rules. “We couldn’t touch or hug, not even the staff,” James said. “They couldn’t be our friends. The rule was that we could be friendly but not friends, do you understand? We could not have a bond with anyone.” The boys didn’t talk about the circumstances that brought them to the ORR shelter for fear of their own safety. And that, perhaps, is also why the boys never discussed their emotions. “We wouldn’t talk about that,” James said. “Almost no one would talk about this.”
James described the shelter staff as “very arrogant.” “They wanted to humiliate you,” he said. “They would do everything possible for you to get mad and lose your patience, because there was more security, and if you got mad, you would suffer the consequences.” And when asked what the consequences were, James started cracking his knuckles. “You would need to go to bed earlier. You would need to write down ‘I shouldn’t wake you up’ three hundred times. They wouldn’t allow you to go to field trips. They wouldn’t allow you to have free time.”
When James began having emotional problems in the shelter, staff doctors gave him impulse control medication without getting Jocelyn’s consent. “I was going crazy in my head,” James said hesitantly. “I was going out of control. There were too many provocations every day. So, I wanted to do things, you know? I had bad thoughts because I was mad for a long time and didn’t have an answer about my case.”
In April Jocelyn was granted a bond that allowed her to go free while her asylum and deportation cases were decided. She asked the government to return James to her. She had long ago provided documents proving that they were mother and son. But the unannounced pilot project and slow-moving bureaucracy kept James in Chicago for two more months. During the nine months and twelve days that they were separated, James made the physical transformation from boy to young man, growing several inches in height. His mother missed that.
Finally, on June 5, Jocelyn and James were reunited at the El Paso airport. An ORR representative traveled with James on the United Airlines flight, and had Jocelyn sign a receipt for his return. “I looked at her differently because she was short. I had grown a lot. I got emotional because it had been a long time. I was happy because I was free,” James said. He said his emotional health has improved since being reunited with his mother. They have been staying at Annunciation House, a nonprofit migrant shelter in El Paso. They plan to leave El Paso soon to stay with a friend elsewhere in the United States while their immigration case is decided. “I want to study, finish my studies, get my work permit and my driver’s license,” James said of his plans for the near future.
When asked if he had a message for the American people about his separation from his mother, James said: “This shouldn’t be done to a person. There were kids younger than me. There was a person with serious mental problems. He almost couldn’t walk. If you haven’t had the experience you cannot imagine how awful it is to be there.”
This story is based on an interview by journalists from Texas Monthly, Youth Radio, and Borderzine. Translation assistance for this article was provided by Lourdes Cueva Chacón, a doctoral student in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.