July 4, 2018 – I crossed the border into the United States on March 13 in search of safety for myself and my sons, ages 4 and 10. We had fled for our lives from El Salvador, where MS-13 gang members had threatened to kill us. We turned ourselves in to the first Border Patrol officers we saw after crossing into Texas. They took us to a Border Patrol station, where I tried to explain that my sons and I needed protection. I could never have imagined immigration authorities would take my children away from me for seeking asylum.
The immigration officers told me that I was going to be taken to an immigration detention center. They said my sons could not come with me. I was given only five minutes to say goodbye. My babies started crying. It breaks my heart to remember my youngest wail, “Why do I have to leave? Mami, I want to stay with you!” My oldest was confused and did not understand what was happening.
In El Salvador, gang members threatened me and threatened my children, too, saying they would take my 10-year-old son from me. I went to the authorities in El Salvador and requested protection, but they didn’t do anything.
Once, the gang members beat me in front of my children. After that, my older son was terrified that they would kill or kidnap me, and he never wanted to leave my side, even to go to the bathroom. He didn’t want to go to school, because he was afraid he would not find me when he came home. My 4-year-old slept in bed with me, and my 10-year-old slept in his own bed in the same room.
I feared not just for my safety but also for my children, so I did what I believe any responsible parent would do — tried to get them to safety. I have family in the United States, and they said they were willing to take us in.
Then, immigration authorities made my sons’ worst fears come true. They left them without their mother.
After my sons were taken away, I was transferred to the Laredo Detention Center. I called the Office of Refugee Resettlement to find out what happened to my children, but they just told me that my boys were in custody in San Antonio. I couldn’t talk to my sons to see how they were doing or to tell them I love them. At one point, I learned that my sons were separated and placed in two different foster homes for a time. I can’t begin to say how desperate I felt knowing that they were alone, among strangers.
Finally, on May 8, after nearly two months in government custody, my children were released to my relatives on the East Coast. I am grateful that my boys were with family, and I could finally talk to them on the telephone. But my sons had no prior relationship with these relatives, and I knew they needed their mother.
Before we were separated, I had never spent a night away from my children. I asked to be released from immigration detention so I could be with them, but when I had my immigration hearing, the government alleged that I had an affiliation with a gang. I tried to explain that I was in fact a victim of the gang. As I said in my sworn affidavit, “I have never been a part of or aided the gangs in El Salvador.”
But the judge set a bond of $12,500.
Thankfully, people from all around the country donated money for my bond through a fund set up by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in Texas. I was reunited with my sons on June 7, after we had been separated for almost three months.
I was so relieved and happy to hold my sons again. But I still think about other mothers who are sick with worry about their own children who were taken from them. I pray that people put themselves in my shoes and theirs, and think about how difficult it must be for mothers to be away from their children.
Jessika L. is part of a class-action lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which assisted her in writing this op-ed. She is using only part of her name in order to protect other family members.
This article and corresponding video were originally published at USA Today.