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For a 6-Year-Old Snared in the Immigration Maze, Lifeline in a Memorized Phone Number

| June 23, 2018

Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid. (Facebook)

Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid. (Facebook)

On a hot and steamy Sunday morning, the man smuggling 6-year-old Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid and her mother, Cindy, across the border into the United States told them to be ready to depart soon. Cindy Madrid, exhausted and excited, called her sisters in Houston — the final leg of their month-long journey from El Salvador was about to begin. The sisters whispered a prayer into the phone, asking God to go with them. Then one sister grew serious: Make sure Jimena memorizes my phone number in case you are separated from one another along the way.

“How do you expect me to do that?” Madrid asked in a panic. “There’s not enough time.”

The sisters were firm. “We don’t know how. But do it.”

One whirlwind week later, that number, drilled into Jimena’s head by rote as she and her mother rafted across the Rio Grande, has become the little girl’s lifeline. Shortly after setting foot in Texas on June 13, they were detained and Border Patrol officials separated mother from daughter as part of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance enforcement policy. But Jimena’s ability to recall her aunt’s phone number through the trauma of that separation has, so far, kept her from becoming lost in a system that has taken more than 2,300 immigrant children from their parents.

Jimena’s insistent pleas for a phone call at a Border Patrol detention facility, captured on an audio recording provided to ProPublica, quickly became the searing incarnation of what the Trump administration is doing to children. Almost instantly, Jimena’s voice was everywhere; listened to millions of times in homes, at protests, and even the White House press briefing room. The seven-minute audio crystallized the impact the policy was having on children, stirring outrage.

“After all she’s gone through, her reward is that she’s become the voice for all the children in that situation,” said her aunt, a Salvadoran woman who is seeking asylum and asked not to be identified because she worries about how public attention might affect her case.

The path ahead for both Jimena and her family remains uncertain. Under withering attack from foes and friends alike, President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to retreat from the policy, saying he had instructed authorities to stop separating immigrant families and start reuniting them. And today, administration officials suggested that they might undo their decision to criminally prosecute every immigrant caught illegally crossing the border.

But thus far, the president has provided no clear plan for implementing his instructions. And, while it only took the stroke of a pen to both create and, perhaps, scuttle the policy, its effects have wrought havoc on an immigration enforcement system already widely recognized as failing. Now that same system faces the daunting task of putting those families back together. Jimena’s case opens a window into how that process will work.

“Whether or not my sister and niece are able to stay in the country, the most important thing is that they are reunified,” said Jimena’s aunt. Speaking of her niece, she added, “What we don’t want is to lose her.”

And she worried about the other children stuck in the same predicament. “It’s really hard,” she said. “I can’t imagine the magnitude of these children’s suffering, the psychological and emotional damage that the older and younger kids there have.”

Memorizing her aunt’s phone number gave Jimena a huge advantage over many of the immigrant children who are illegally brought across the border by their families, and who are not old enough to speak, count, or even know their parents’ full names. Central American consular workers and child advocates report that, under zero tolerance, once children have been physically separated from their parents, their legal cases have been bureaucratically separated as well. The children have been treated like unaccompanied minors, even as their relatives were shipped to other U.S. detention centers. Now that the policy of separating families appears to have ended, the burden of the reunification will depend in large measure on the children’s abilities to provide information that will help authorities identify who, and where, their parents are.

The audio provided to ProPublica last week shows how difficult that will be. In it, nearly a dozen Central American children between the ages of four and 10 wail inconsolably. Consular officials struggle to get the children to stop crying long enough to tell them where they came from, and whether they came with their mothers or their fathers. The children are so distraught, they sound as if they can barely breathe. And they scream “Mami” and “Papá” as if those are the only words they know.

Amid the chaos, Jimena is heard, asking in full sentences for authorities to help her call her aunt. When they do not respond, she presses her point: “My mommy says that I’ll go with my aunt, and that she will come to pick me up there as quickly as possible so I can go with her.”

Jimena’s aunt said the consular official who eventually helped Jimena call her was struck by the child’s ability to stay composed under that kind of pressure. “Of all the children here, she’s the only one who provided information,” the official told her. “Most children here aren’t able to give names, much less a phone number.’”

The aunt said when she first heard Jimena’s voice on the phone “I threw myself out of bed and fell on my knees. I thanked God that she remembered the number. If not, I don’t know what would have happened to her.”

Still, even though the authorities know where her mother is, Jimena has not been given a chance to speak to her mother since they were separated. And while authorities have told the family that Jimena will be reunited with her mother, they have not said when.

A staff member at the shelter in Phoenix, Arizona, where Jimena is being held couldn’t fully explain why the girl had not been allowed to speak to her mother, or even whether her mother had been consulted about vaccinations Jimena has received. The shelter worker, who would not provide her name, said that at one point, when Jimena’s mother called from an immigration detention facility in Port Isabel, Texas, the little girl was in a mandatory “Know Your Rights” workshop and couldn’t be excused to take the call. The shelter worker said the mother, who has very little money to pay for phone calls and spotty access to a telephone, was told to call back.

“I can’t say exactly why we haven’t been able to get Mom to talk to her daughter,” the shelter worker said. “But we are hoping to get Mom on the phone with her soon.”

In the meantime, the aunt passes messages between Jimena and her mother. She talked about her niece’s ordeal during an extensive interview in her tiny, rundown apartment on the southwest side of Houston. Her relief at finding her niece was palpable. She shared dozens of family photos, and showed the outpouring of messages on her Facebook page, joking about how she’s had her own “five minutes of fame,” thanks to her niece’s renown.

During the interview, both Jimena and her mother called the aunt. Madrid came to the United States from a small town outside her country’s capital, fleeing gang violence. She was cautiously optimistic about the prospect of reuniting with her daughter. She said other detainees had told her they heard Jimena on TV. “I’m so proud. She’s a very smart girl, very brave.”

Jimena, now happily connected to her aunt and her mom, sounded almost chirpy when she called, her rapid-fire way of talking making it hard for non-native Spanish speakers to catch everything she said. She organized her thoughts in lists, running through the activities of her day, the meals she likes and doesn’t like, and numbers and locations of vaccinations she’s received. One, she said, playfully pausing as if delivering a punch line, was “right on the very, very bottom of my butt.”

What she talked most about was not where she is, but were she wants to be: with her mother, outside of detention. When she gets there, she said she already knows the pets she wants to buy and the kinds of pizzas she wants to eat. She blew kisses through the phone to her favorite cousin and asked whether they can go to the same school. Then she asked her aunt whether she has a bathtub, warning: “You’re going to have to bathe me, because I’m going to be very dirty when I get there.” And then, her silly tone softened and she asked her aunt when she would see her mother again.

The aunt had no answer. “We don’t know yet, my love,” the aunt told her. “But she told me to tell you to behave yourself and be strong, until you’re back together.”

–Ginger Thompson, ProPublica

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21 Responses for “For a 6-Year-Old Snared in the Immigration Maze, Lifeline in a Memorized Phone Number”

  1. Mark says:

    Trump didn’t do shit. Her mother should have entered the country legally, period. Try it, you may like it.

  2. fiscal says:

    DEPORT them……

  3. woodchuck says:

    I guess we need a poster child!

  4. Carol Fisher says:

    The heartbreaking video of this little girl speaking to her aunt is here:

  5. Anonymous says:

    OMG—The TV news has been feeding us so much FAKE news! This child is beautiful and certainly doens’t look saddened to be separated from her parent or parents and she sure looks well taken care of whether her healthy look came from her home country or how she was cared for here in the USA. I would tend to believe that she came to the USA in this condition because she hasn’t been here long enough for the USA to improve her health and appearance. Bottom line is, if parents didn’t want to be separated then they should have put their children at risk. Now they can share the cell together and the child can endure a life of gloom and doom while sitting behind bars because of the poor judgment of their parent(s). When adults bring their child and put them in this position, they should additionally be criminally charged. The parents can’t and shouldn’t avoid prosecution for violating the law and showing their children to do wrong, when they could have done it right and legal. Shame on you undocumented fools!

  6. Stranger in a strange land says:

    I can only imagine what conditions are where Jimena and her mother come from. It must be pretty awful to take the risks involved. I have to imagine that to do this, you have to conclude that what will happen to your child where you are leaving is worse than anything that could happen when you flee to what you hope will be a better life for your child. People like Jimena’s mother are the people that will work three horrible jobs to provide for their child. They are a lot like many of our ancestors who fled from famine in Ireland, religious persecution in Russia, and poverty and crime in many other countries. They did it at a time when the U.S. welcomed and provided legal immigration and asylum to the poor masses. That is not the case today. A poor mother and child from a central American country could not afford to pursue legal immigration and if she did, would have a low likelihood of succeeding. These parents want a better life for their children or at least the possibility for that child to stay alive. They are making what must be an incredibly difficult choice to risk coming here. If we did allow people like Jimena’s mother to come here legally and earn citizenship, she would be the kind of people this country needs. People who will clean hotel rooms, wash dishes, and care for people in nursing homes (maybe all three). Many of their children will become business owners, doctors, plumbers, accountants, executives, etc.. History shows that that is what happened for previous waves of immigration. It happened to my family after my Grandmother came here. God bless America.

  7. straight mama says:

    I a really happy that child is safe, but the mother put her in the situation she was in. NOT Donald Trump. If they had not tried to SNEAK into our country this would not have happened. Our relatives that were not American came in the legal way. Maybe that is what these illegals should try doing. Honesty IS the best policy.

  8. Rich Khan says:

    Homeless Veterans need HELP! Does anyone care? Time for the Democrats to support their follow Americans! We can start helping in Palm Coast instead wasting money on STUPID projects! Thank a veteran for your FREEDOM!

  9. Idiots says:

    What kind of parent would subject their children to such treatment? This kids mom should be arrested for child abuse.
    No mention of who created these policies? Only who enforces them? Sounds a little one sided.
    Im going to Scotland and england at the end of the year and am doing it by the book. Me and my kids will not be separated because I do things things the right way… sympathy here.

  10. Traveling Rep says:

    Such a horrible way for this mother to treat her daughter. Subjecting her to isolation due to her desire to break our immigration laws. The mother should be locked away for a long time. Thanks to Trump for protecting our borders by enforcing the laws (bipartisan, mind you) that congress enacted. You know, the same ones that obama and bush and Clinton enforced…

    Thanks for sharing this info about the flawed characters trying to enter our country illegally. The mother’s obviously abusing her daughter by willfully dubjecting her to this isolation and pushing her into our system of handling aliens.

    MAGA, go back and do it the right way!

  11. Laurie says:

    Wake up people. The key to success is simple. Do not SNEAK in, do it LEGALLY! America is the land of opportunity, but there is a proper way to do things.

  12. PC Citizen says:

    The Race card is so over done…..And the immigration “poor little Jemina” crap is SO OVER DONE.

    ENOUGH…….Stay in your own country until you LEGALLY work your way to America !

  13. Stranger in a strange land says:

    For those of you saying shame on that mother, “why doesn’t she just get in line and come here legally”? Please read this:

    It is not like when there was Ellis Island. Most of these people wouldn’t qualify because they don’t have a job waiting, don’t have the proper family in the US, don’t have the money or education to get over the hurdles. The place where they live has become worse than a war zone. The chances their child will be killed, abducted, or forced to commit illegal acts is through the roof. Honduras and Guatemala have some of the highest murder rates in the world. What would you do? These are the people that would do anything to save their child. So, before you say “why don’t they come legally”, do your research, know the true facts of legal immigration. If you want them to come legally then contact your representatives and tell them a solution to illegal immigration is to make legal immigration quick and achievable . They are going to come one way or the other, they are desperate. Don’t you want them to earn it by working and paying taxes? However, If you just don’t want “them” here, then don’t tell me you are pro life and love Jesus.

  14. Makeitso1701 says:

    The trump fans are showing their true colors again, just like the dumb ass in the White House, the racist to the core are voicing their opinion on this immigration disaster that the idiot in chief created and it’s all about not being white. If these kids were blond, blue eyed and white, we wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigrants crossing the border, nor would we be talking about building a wall.

  15. Edith Campins says:

    Shame on all of you. Have you no decency, no humanity left in you? You are smug in your comndemntion of the parents and heartless is excusing the teror being inflicted on the children. The bottom line is you don’t care because they are not white, American children.

    Coming into this country illegally is a misdemeanor.

    And yes, this is trump’s fault, he created this mess. Why not simply turn them, back at the border, together?

  16. Vinny says:

    If these kids were blond, blue eyed and white……..They wouldn’t need to cross the border. They would be in Germany beating the sh*t out of Muslims

  17. Willi2458 says:

    So Trump is the only one that knew about this? If all the others in Washington got off Trump then maybe this would of been addressed before it was a issue. But i assume all this was done in seceret as all of our representatives seemed surprised.

  18. Ignorance says:

    They just detained a WHITE girl. That accidentally crossed the border from canada….Trump didnt create this law! He’s just enforcing it.

  19. Joe says:

    Why in the world would you risk your child’s life like that, a good parent would never do anything to endanger their child, what a twisted ideological story!

  20. Richard says:

    The dumb asses here are the ones that can’t see the Forest for The Trees.

  21. mark101 says:

    Regardless, these parents, and kids are in this country illegally. All they had to do is come into this country legally at the boarder and seek asylum. IN 2017 115,000 people from all over the world applied at the US boarders for asylum, 20,455 individuals, including principal applicants and their spouses and/or unmarried children under age 21 were approved after back ground checks.

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