After they were separated at the Mexican border in Arizona, the 35-year-old Brazilian mother was detained in an enclosure with other mothers while her 9-year-old son was held separately with other children. The only way they could see each other, she said, was by looking through a small window.
The first night, because he was new, the other children allowed the 9-year-old to stay at the window and look at his mother. He put his hand to the surface and cried.
For the next 2 ½ days, she and the other mothers took turns looking through the window at their children and mouthing words of comfort to them.
“What did I do with my life?” she remembers thinking.
The woman, one of four immigrants living in Massachusetts who sued to be reunited with their children, told her story Monday at the Brazilian Worker Center in Allston less than 48 hours after being reunited with her son, providing a glimpse into life within detention centers.
The facility, she said, kept them idle and inside with little opportunity for fresh air or activity. The air-conditioning blasted cold air nonstop, she said, making it difficult to tell when day turned to night.
Then one morning, a federal agent entered her son’s enclosure and removed him and several other children. She screamed and screamed while banging on the window, trying to get someone’s attention, but her pleas were ignored.
That was May 30. It would be 45 days before the two were together again, a separation made all the worse because, for much of that time, the boy’s whereabouts were unknown to her.
They were reunited Saturday, and it was a moment his mother said brought her more joy than the day he was born.
“I can’t put into words what I felt at that moment,” she said, asking to be identified only by her initials, W.R. Lawyers did not say where in Massachusetts she lives. “I came to protect my son because I was the victim of domestic violence. My brother lives here with his family, and they kept saying to me that this is a [safe] place to live with my child.”
But, she said, she did not find the security she sought.
“When I first came here I was handcuffed. I was treated as an animal, and they took my son,” she said Monday morning at a news conference during which the boy sat shyly next to his mother, cuddling with her and playing with her hair.
Their reunification was marked with a celebratory lunch, ice cream, a trip to the park, and phone calls to family in Brazil. Then, she said, he spent the night sleeping in his mother’s arm.
“He still feels afraid,” she said. “I don’t know what they told him during the time that he was there. When I ask, he just moves his head, but he doesn’t say too much.”
The women, who are living in Massachusetts while awaiting asylum hearings, sued the federal government, arguing that it had placed unreasonable roadblocks in their path to reuniting with their children. Those children were among the nearly 3,000 separated from their parents at the border under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for migrants who cross the border illegally.
A judge heard arguments in W.R.’s case on Thursday.
“Today, we declare victory,” Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which is representing W.R. along with the law offices of Wilmer Hale, said Monday. “Less than 24 hours following powerful arguments in federal court the government released a 9-year-old boy it held in a Texas facility after dragging its feet.”
Late last month, a judge in California ordered the reunification of all children with their parents by the end of the July. W.R. and her brother and sister-in-law, with whom W.R. and her son will live, were fingerprinted for criminal background checks. A site visit of the home was conducted.
Still, government attorneys remained reluctant to immediately release the boy, known in court documents as A.R., arguing in federal court Thursday that there was no need for him to “leapfrog over children with the same issues.” Releasing him immediately, they said, would “divert resources from an orderly and timely reunification” of the other children who remain separated from their parents.
But they reversed course on Friday, with the government facility holding A.R. calling his mother, who was cooking at the time, to say her son was ready to be released.
“I almost burned the food,” she said with a smile Monday. “I was very happy.”
Then came a frantic effort to buy his plane ticket and arrange for an adult to accompany him on the trip from Houston to Boston. He arrived Saturday at 2 p.m.
W.R. and her son fled Brazil in fear of their lives, she said, presenting themselves to immigration authorities on May 28 after crossing the border in Arizona.
His father, her attorneys said, was violent toward them both and tried to pull the 9-year-old into drug trafficking. None of the border patrol agents at the crossing spoke Portuguese, and she was not referred to an asylum officer for a credible fear interview, court papers said.
She was released from custody on June 20 after her family posted a $7,500 bond. Her immigration case was transferred to Boston, where she has a court hearing within a month.
Had she known this was the fate that awaited her and her son, W.R. said, she would have fled somewhere else and not come to the United States to seek asylum.
“It’s a country of opportunity, but it’s not how people imagine,” she said.
In Brazil, she said, people think living here is easy, that once an immigrant arrives, he or she is able to find work and make money to pay their bills.
“They don’t think this can happen,” she said.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.