It has been more than five weeks since a mother, known as “WR” in a lawsuit against the US government, has seen her nine-year-old son.
The pair left their home in Brazil in May, hoping to escape years of abuse and threats by WR’s husband who is involved in drug trafficking.
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WR wanted to start a new life in the United States where she already has family, but she entered the country in the middle of right-wing President Donald Trump’s crackdown on asylum seekers and migrants.
“We were holding on to each other and crying,” WR, who asked that her name be withheld, tells Al Jazeera.
“I was holding onto my son. My son was holding onto me,” the woman, who is now suing for the release of her son, recalls, describing how they were taken to a detention centre after crossing an official port of entry and declaring asylum.
“We were both crying and we were asking what’s happening.”
She says the guards forcibly put them in separate cells.
“We didn’t speak the language and there was no one there that spoke Portuguese. No one was telling us anything,” she says. “They just pointed to the two cells and then they took my son from me and put him in one cell and put me in another cell.”
Their two glass cells were on opposite sides of the room and both were packed, she says. WR estimates that her cell was designed to hold about 20 to 30 people but had around 90 adults in it. She says she could barely move.
“If we squeezed ourselves to the front of our cells, we could see each other,” WR says
“Because we were so desperate, crying, the other mothers would let me come to the front of the cell,” she adds. “My son squeezed to the front too so we could see each other a little bit.”
WR says the children in the opposite cell were of all ages; from babies and toddlers to small children and older teenagers.
“The majority of the children were screaming and pounding on the glass. They were all trying to get to the front to see their parents in our cell. I couldn’t tell how many children there were.”
It’s estimated that more than 2,000 children are still languishing in shelters across the country.
They were separated from their parents after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the government’s “zero tolerance” policy in April.
At the time, Sessions told migrants and refugees that they would not be arrested if they went “to our ports of entry” to claim asylum.
However, according to local reports, many – including WR – have been separated from their children and detained even at official ports of entry.
Last month, a judge in California ordered the US government to reunite parents with children under the age of five by July 10, and all other children by July 26.
On Thursday, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said his agency was moving parents to detention centres closer to the sites where their children were being held.
‘They chose them like they were supermarket products’
For WR, as she awaits word on if and when she will be reunited with her son, she continues to replay the memories of when she last saw him in her head.
After being separated, WR watched as her son was taken away by the authorities.
“I saw some new people walking by and then they went into the cell. Then they just chose some of the children like they were supermarket products,” she says. “And then all of a sudden I saw one of them taking my son away,” she adds.
“I started pounding on the glass, screaming because they were taking my son, but they just ignored me and kept going. A few minutes later someone came by and told me that they were taking my son to another location and that someone was going to take care of him. But the guard was very cold.”
It took another 20 days of pleading with the guards before she heard her son’s voice again. She says the phone call was monitored. Her son was not allowed to tell her his location, only brief details on how he was doing. If he tried to say anything else, the phone was taken away.
She has been able to speak to him four times since then.
On June 20, WR was released from detention and into the care of her family in Massachusetts. It was only last week that she found out, through the help of a lawyer, that her son is being held at a facility in Baytown, Texas.
Their case has been taken up by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in Boston which has filed a lawsuit seeking to force immigration officials to reunite them.
WR’s written legal statement describes the bureaucratic hurdles she’s currently trying to navigate to apply to be her son’s sponsor and have him released to her.
“Under intense public pressure, the federal government has started releasing parents,” WR’s lawyer, Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, says. “The parents were told that they would be reunited with their children upon posting bond and being released, but the children remain in government custody,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“These practices are designed to deter and punish immigrants, many of whom have viable asylum claims … The federal government’s deplorable practices are designed to defeat the viable asylum claims of Latino immigrants, and to encourage immigrants with viable asylum claims to self-deport in order to be reunited with their children.”
During several conference calls with reporters, government officials insisted that all immigrants and asylum seekers in its facilities are treated with respect – a claim WR disputes.
“No, there was no respect. We were treated worse than animals,” she says
“The place that I stayed for the first 10 days, it was never cleaned, we never showered, there was no brushing teeth or anything like that. There was one toilet with a camera over it,” she says, holding back tears.
“I was cold, hungry and thirsty most of the time because they gave us very little food and the water that we drank was from the bathroom sink. There was too much chlorine in the water so when we drank it would break our lips so it would hurt but that was the only water that we had access to.”
A spokesman with US Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) said the agency does not comment on matters pending litigation when Al Jazeera asked about WR’s treatment.
We are immigrants, yes. But we are human beings - and we were not treated as human beings. We were treated like criminals.
As for WR’s son, the last time she spoke to him was a few days ago. She was allowed just three minutes.
“He was crying and he said he was hungry,” she says.
“He wanted to know when I was going to come and get him. He was telling me they don’t understand him, there’s no one to talk to.”
She says she prays every day to God for help finishing the paperwork she needs to complete.
“We are immigrants, yes,” she says, “But we are human beings – and we were not treated as human beings. We were treated like criminals.”