Early last week, Amy Maldonado, an immigration attorney from Michigan, paid a visit to the office of the Heartland Alliance International Children’s Center in Chicago. Maldonado was there to meet with her clients: two Brazilian boys who were separated from their fathers by U.S. border authorities in New Mexico a month earlier. The boys, unrelated and aged 15 and 9, were delivered to the office from an undisclosed location. For security and privacy purposes, the exact location of the shelter where they are staying is a closely guarded secret, even from their attorney. Maldonado knows only that the building has at least four stories and that, as far as she can tell, it seems to be a professional operation.
Along with a Portuguese interpreter, Maldonado and the kids grabbed a table in a corner of Heartland’s office. She explained that she did not work for the government and that she was part of the growing team of attorneys working to get them out of detention and reunited with their fathers, who remain locked up more than 1,000 miles away: The boys are plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging their ongoing separation from their fathers. (A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois declined to comment on the case, citing Department of Justice policy.) They are identified in court filings by their initials. The older one is identified as W.S.R., the younger as C.D.A. The Intercept is withholding the names of their fathers, who are in the midst of sensitive asylum proceedings, at their request.
“I would like to be with my father on my birthday. That will be on July 6.”
Maldonado had two hours with the boys. W.S.R. worked on a letter to the judge in his case as they spoke. He filled up two pages with looping Portuguese print. The 15-year-old explained that, after they were arrested and taken to a Department of Homeland Security holding center, he and his father were told to a sign a document. If they refused, they would be separated for an unspecified period; if they signed, they would only be separated for a few days. “It has been a month since I saw my father last,” he wrote to the judge, adding that he would “never again” believe an immigration officer. “I thought it was going to be for small amount of time and I barely said goodbye to my father and I am missing him so much.” He added, “I want to be with my father it doesn’t matter where, but preferably here.”
“I would like to be with my father on my birthday,” he wrote. “That will be on July 6” — this Friday.
As W.S.R. worked on his letter, 9-year-old C.D.A. busied himself with a set of crayons and a few sheets of paper. Maldonado asked questions as the boy drew. Maldonado’s account of the conversation, later filed in court, produced a rare thing: a firsthand account from a young child swept up in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border crackdown.
“I don’t remember much about what happened when the immigration police caught us,” C.D.A began, according to the statement he gave to Maldonado. The family spent two days at the border holding facility, he said, the same one W.S.R. had described in his letter. “My dad asked to call my mother and they let us call,” he remembered. “It was very cold, and there were no beds.” He and his father slept on the floor. “The lights were on all the time,” C.D.A. said. “We ate burritos and cereal and apple juice. Sometimes they gave us clean water and sometimes we refilled the empty bottles from the faucet.”
“I drank with my hands and the water was white but I was thirsty, so I drank it anyway,” he said.
C.D.A. told Maldonado that his father had explained to him that they were going to be separated. Shortly thereafter, he said, “a police officer called my name and [W.S.R.’s name] and got other kids, got our things and put me in a police car and took me to a different place without my dad. Inside the car was a pregnant woman and two kids. There was still no beds to sleep on, just something that looked like a trampoline bed. The lights were on all the time here too.” As the lone Brazilian kids at their new detention center, C.D.A. stuck close to the older W.S.R.
“None of the police there spoke Portuguese,” he said. “They used Google Translate where the officers type and then they translate. We only ate ramen noodles for lunch and dinner and water, and burrito breakfast and or cereal and apple juice. I asked to call my mother when I got there and they said no.”
One day, the 9-year-old explained, “Two police, a man and a woman, took us by a bus to the airport, the man said that they had clothes and food to give us. We changed clothes and he bought us water.” On their journey, C.D.A. said, he and W.S.R. met other kids who spoke Portuguese — a boy and a girl. “We told the officers that we wanted to take a shower,” he said. The answer came back no. “We only took a shower here in Chicago.”
Since arriving in Chicago, C.D.A. said, he’s only spoken to his father two times. He’s allowed two 10-minute calls with his mother each week. “I want to talk to my mother so much that I made a calendar of the days that I can talk to her,” he said. “I want to talk to my dad when I am sad,” he added. “I want to be back with my dad. I don’t know where my dad is right now.”
By the time they finished speaking, C.D.A. had completed three drawings for submission in his case. The first depicted the plane he and his father took from Brazil to Mexico City, the second showed the car they rode in, and the third, he told Maldonado, reflected his mother’s home back in Brazil — showing a hammock strung between two palm trees under a blue sky.
In addition to Maldonado, the Brazilian boys and their fathers are represented by attorneys with Aldea — The People’s Justice Center, a collective of lawyers with years of experience representing parents and children in the immigration system, as well as DLA Piper, a multinational law firm. Their suit is part of a growing body of litigation challenging the Trump administration’s systematic separation of thousands of children from their parents over the last year.
Last week, the judge presiding over the Brazilians’ case, District Judge Edmond E. Chang, issued an injunction prohibiting the government from deporting the fathers without their sons. It was a timely order, attorneys for the families said. In a meeting with lawyer Karen Hoffman, a member of the Brazilians’ legal team, W.S.R.’s father said officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had urged him in the preceding days to sign a form authorizing his voluntary deportation, allegedly claiming that he would be reunited with his son if he did so. According to Hoffman, the papers offered to the Portuguese-speaking W.S.R. were written in Spanish, and the officials presenting them spoke in English.
“Fortunately,” Hoffman said, “he refused to sign.”
Similar stories have emerged across the border — of U.S. immigration officials dangling the prospect of reunification to parents separated from their children, including asylum-seekers, on the condition that they consent to their own deportation. Following an injunction issued by a federal judge in a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last week, the government is under orders to reunify the children it separated from their parents. Thus far, the process appears to be in disarray. “Several hundred parents appear to have been deported without their children in April alone,” said a report, based on U.S. Border Patrol arrest data, published last week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, a research center that compiles information about government activities, indicating that the impact of “zero tolerance” was already substantial well before the courts ever intervened.
Across the U.S. and Latin America, thousands of families have been affected by the Trump administration’s decision to charge every single person accused of crossing the border illegally with a crime, all the while with no system in place to handle the historic influx of kids effectively rendered parentless by the state. Infants, toddlers, and asylum-seekers like the Brazilians are among those affected.
In his interview with Hoffman, W.S.R.’s father explained that he and his son fled Brazil following a series of threats from a powerful organized crime figure in their area of the country. Specifically, the father said, a local criminal figure had wrongly zeroed in on the family for filing a police report against him, which the father claims they did not do. “I did not go to the police,” W.S.R.’s father explained. “If I went to the police, it would be even worse. In Brazil the police and the drug traffickers are like a business.” The father of the younger boy, C.D.A., too, claimed he had run afoul of organized crime in Brazil — in his case, owing money to a loan shark linked to human traffickers. If deported to Brazil, he fears the traffickers would force him and C.D.A. into indentured servitude, or worse.
“It is unfortunately very common in my country that people who are in trouble with the traffickers wind up killed,” he told Hoffman. “And the police don’t do anything.”
In court filings, both fathers said they hoped and planned to file asylum by presenting themselves at a lawful port of entry, but were told the post was “closed” by U.S. officials. “We had to get into the country to ask for asylum, so we crossed at a place nearby,” W.S.R.’s father told Hoffman. C.D.A.’s father added, “We wanted to cross legally but we were told the bridge was closed.” He went on: “They weren’t letting anyone past. An official said it was closed and people had to go back. A man, who was Mexican, directed us to cross at some other place. He promised everything would be fine.”
Arrest records reviewed by The Intercept show the fathers were apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol on May 23, as they crossed the international boundary by foot, “approximately eight miles east of the Santa Teresa, New Mexico Port of Entry.” From there, the families were moved to the DHS-run holding facility described by the boys to Maldonado.
“It was not a good place,” C.D.A.’s father recalled.
“He cried and hugged me. He’s a good kid. He had never been separated from me or his mom before.”
“The kids slept on the floor with their dads,” he explained. “There were children of both sexes mixed together. There were girls as old as 14. They had no bathroom privacy. I can’t imagine what their fathers must have felt like.” Both fathers said their boys were in tears when the moment of separation came. W.S.R.’s father said he was told he was being taken to jail. C.D.A.’s dad claimed the U.S. agent who came for his son gave him no information as to where the 9-year-old was being taken. “Look, I’ll just be gone three days, five at the most, and then I will see you again,” C.D.A.’s father recalled telling the boy, doing his best not to frighten the child. “He cried and hugged me,” he said. “He’s a good kid. He had never been separated from me or his mom before.”
“I told him I wouldn’t leave him,” C.D.A.’s father said. “Now I feel like I’ve lied to my son because it’s now been more than a month since I’ve seen him.”
The fathers were prosecuted, along with more than two dozen other Brazilians, in a mass hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory B. Wormuth on June 6, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They had each been charged with a federal misdemeanor for crossing the border illegally, prompting the separation from their sons. The men described a confusing and fast-moving process in which they felt unable to express concerns about their boys — even the fact that they had children in detention — or their desire to seek asylum for fear of being deported to Brazil. “I didn’t have a chance to explain what had happened with not being able to cross the bridge, or how I wanted to ask for asylum,” W.S.R.’s father said. “I didn’t have any opportunity to talk with the other attorney I had. She represented many Brazilians that day. I only remember she looked at me and they were saying my name, and my son’s name, I started to cry because I was feeling so desperate.”
“We never got to speak,” he added. “I never had the opportunity to talk about my fear or my situation. I hadn’t slept in days.”
C.D.A.’s father described a similar series of events. “It was a hard choice – accept deportation and see our kids again or fight the charge and get up to six months,” he explained. “Many of the dads had mental breakdowns.” He added, “The attorneys didn’t care that much about our cases. They didn’t talk to us individually. Just one woman explained it to everyone. It was like we were being induced to leave. In court, they said, if you try to fight your case, you could get six months. I said no because ICE took my son and they will return him. I want to go back to ICE custody so I can see him again.”
By chance, there happened to be independent observers in the courtroom on the day the Brazilian fathers were sentenced. Margaret Brown Vega and her partner, Nathan Craig, are both retired anthropologists who worked in Latin America. They were invited by the local federal public defender’s office to observe a so-called Streamline hearing, where immigrants are processed quickly and en masse, on June 6 — the same day the fathers were sentenced. They were present for conversations between the defense attorneys and their Brazilian clients prior to and during their sentencing. Brown Vega and Craig took nearly 20 pages of detailed notes describing what they witnessed, which they later shared with The Intercept.
Brown Vega described more than two dozen men and women — W.S.R and C.D.A.’s fathers among them — entering the courtroom shackled at the feet, waists, and hands. “The men are all wearing dark green jumpsuits, and the women lime green jumpsuits except two,” she wrote. Both Vega and Craig, in their separate accounts, described hearing a public defender tell the fathers and the other defendants, “We know some of you have come with children.” Several of the defendants began to nod at the mention of the children, the pair noted. By their count, Craig wrote, “all, or nearly all, of the men were traveling with minors. Seemingly all but one female was traveling with a minor.”
Brown Vega’s and Craig’s notes depict a chaotic proceeding in which, from their vantage point, it seemed that C.D.A.’s and W.S.R.’s fathers, along with the other defendants that day, were ill-served by their federal public defenders. At one point, after stating some of those concerns to the public defenders, the pair were temporarily removed from the courtroom. They were permitted, however, to return for sentencing. “Despite the fact that it came out before the hearing that nearly all of the individuals at the hearings had children, and that some of them were asylum seekers, neither of these facts and circumstances came out during court proceedings,” Craig wrote in assessment of the hearing. “Today, as most days, leaves me with more questions than answers.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, the Brazilian fathers were sentenced to time served and returned to ICE custody. “I thought I’d finally be reunited with my son,” W.S.R.’s dad said. “But I wasn’t.” Instead, the pair began a journey through the immigration detention system, as the government prepared to ship their sons to Chicago. C.D.A.’s father recalled being held in another temporary holding facility as he was being moved to a more permanent detention center in New Mexico. Again, he said, they slept on the floor. “I asked if they could raise the temperature,” he recalled. “They said ‘no, because of bacteria.’”
“Well,” he thought, “if the cold kills bacteria it could kill us too.”
In the weeks that followed, the fathers struggled to find their boys and to speak to them. C.D.A.’s father turned to other Brazilian dads in ICE custody. “Many of them had already been there 10 days, even 18 days, so we knew what happened to them would happen to us,” he said. “I called the 1-800 number my attorney gave me to try to talk to my son. But they just asked for information about me and said the next week I would talk to him. I didn’t know if I could get calls.” Two weeks ago, the two were finally able to speak for the first time. “It was a big relief,” C.D.A.’s father said. “But the things he said disturbed me a lot. He sounded so adult. He said, ‘God help me, I don’t want anyone to go through what I’m going through.’”
“A nine-year-old child said that,” he said, emphasizing his son’s young age.
W.S.R.’s first communication with his son came on June 15. “Dad, I’m never going to see you again,” he said. W.S.R. has been crying a lot, his father told their attorney, and is “desperate to get out of the center where he is being held.” Last week, the pair were able to speak again, but only for two minutes. “I have to pay for our calls with my commissary money,” W.S.R.’s dad explained. “Then when I call, they keep me on hold and the longer I wait the more my money runs out. It’s very hard to communicate.”
“They treat our children like trash in the street.”
W.S.R.’s father was, however, able to discover one important piece of information: “W.S.R. said he lost his passport when they were making him run through an airport, taking him to wherever he is,” he said. “They treat our children like trash in the street.”
Holding it together through all of this, W.S.R.’s father explained, is extraordinarily difficult. Last week, following his meeting with his attorney, he was once again moved to a new detention center. Prior to his relocation, he told his lawyer, in clear and precise terms, of the pain he is currently experiencing.
“It’s very isolating here,” he said. “Nobody speaks Portuguese. There are only three of us Brazilians. I pretend it’s all right when I talk to my son, but it’s not all right. I tell him everything’s fine, great. But it’s not true. I can’t tell him the truth because it would disturb him. I try to eat but I know I’m losing weight. But I try because my son needs me strong. I’m very anxious, I dream about seeing him. Day after day I think, ‘Tomorrow I’ll see him.’ I will never be able to forget what has happened. It’s like a scar, it will never go away. There is no price that could compensate for this. The people that have done this must not have children. It’s like living in a nightmare. I want to wake up, but I can’t. I want to be with my son, and I want to come to Chicago where he is to try to get him back. He needs to be with me, his own father. I also want the chance to work with my lawyers on mine and my son’s asylum case. I cannot do anything here in the jail. It is so hard to even talk to my lawyer on the telephone. I am most afraid that I will be deported to Brazil without my son. I don’t know how I would get him back if that happens. Whatever happens, we have to stay together.”
The government will present its arguments in the Brazilians’ case in court this week. W.S.R. plans to attend the crucial hearing, so he can be present for his own defense. “If we lose,” Maldonado said, “and we lose all the way up, this is the only hearing that he’ll ever get in the United States. And he wants to go.” Whether he will get his wish — to celebrate his birthday with his father on Friday — remains decidedly unclear. He will be 16 years old.