Queen Esther on the Rio Grande

Reunited With Their Children, Immigrant Mothers Find Themselves in a Strange and Unforgiving Land

Illustration: Nicole Xu for The Intercept

When I first met Cruz she had not seen her 10-year-old daughter for 73 days. Cruz is from Honduras and a dead ringer for the terrified but brave Queen Esther, wife of Ahasuerus, the Old Testament king of the Persians. On the advice of Mordecai, a kindly man from her family who worked at the palace, Esther interrupted the king to implore him not to slaughter her people, the Jews. She stood before Ahasuerus even though doing so might provoke him to put her to death. It goes without saying that Esther was scared stiff. A few thousand years later in Texas, standing before an eminent man in robes, so was Cruz.

Cruz admitted as much last week, the day after her release from “zero tolerance” immigration detention. By then, she was preparing for reunification with her young daughter, from whom she had been separated in early May.

I discovered her during the first week of her and her little girl’s separation. I live in Brownsville, Texas. There, on May 10, Cruz had been one of dozens of immigrants who clanked into my city’s federal courthouse, in handcuffs, leg irons, and waist chains, for one of those “mass trials” that people were just starting to talk about. Cruz and her chain-mates had — as the assistant U.S. attorney intoned during the mass trial — “waded, swam, or rafted across the Rio Grande” in violation of U.S. Criminal Code Title 8 Section 1325, a misdemeanor, which made Cruz and her fellow defendants accused criminals. One by one in 34 minutes, all pleaded guilty — Culpable. Culpable. Culpable. The word transformed them into convicts.

Their children already had been taken from them, on the day before the trial.

On the books, the maximum penalty for violating USC 1325 is six months in jail. In practice, most people are penalized with only “time served,” which amounts to the day or so they’ve been locked up since getting caught at the river. But until they are actually sentenced, the immigrants cannot be sure what their punishment will be. Before sentencing, they have a chance to stand in their chains and speak to the judge. Many are barely literate; almost all are tired, hungry, and miserable. Very few say anything; to do so requires unusual bravery. Cruz stood and spoke — though she was quaking with fear, she later told me — and her words were recorded as part of the proceedings of the day.

“Is my little girl going to go with me when I get deported?” she asked the judge. The King of Persia in his crown looked kindly on Esther and did not behead her. The judge of Brownsville in his robe also responded with sympathy. He told Cruz and the other parents that he thought they would be reunited with their children in “immigration camp,” though he wasn’t really sure if this was so. His uncertainty caused him audible distress, and he delivered a brief, impromptu speech to the assistant attorney. If it were not true that parents would be “joined” with their children, the judge said sternly, then the government was surely creating for their parents a species of “hell.”

The judge gave his hell speech on Thursday, May 10. Immediately afterward, Cruz was sent to immigration detention. She was released from hell on Monday evening, July 16.

I’d found her while she was still detained, by reviewing court and ICE records, which located her at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, a federally run immigration detention facility about 45 minutes from Brownsville. I sent her a letter referencing her stand-up interaction with the judge and asked to speak with her. I had outfitted my phone number with an account that accepted calls from Port Isabel, and she started calling. I got personally involved with her, especially after she called in early July to excitedly announce that she had passed her “credible fear” interview — a session in which she took an oath to tell the truth and told a hearing officer why she was afraid to return to Honduras. She recounted how her partner was a hit man who raped, kidnapped, and tried to kill her. The hearing officer believed her, and she had qualified to be released on bond. After that, she would await a full hearing in immigration court, two or three years in the future. She planned to settle with her daughter in North Carolina while she waited.

On the phone  I referred her to RAICES, the immigrant assistance organization that raised over $20 million on social media during the weeks after “zero tolerance” infuriated the country. RAICES said they would immediately pay her $1,500 bond. I then directed Cruz to a group of Brownsville-area women who call themselves the “Angry Tías y Abuelas” (tías means aunts; abuelas are grandmothers). They are mostly middle-aged and older women.

Like many similar groups nationally, the Tias and Abuelas came together spontaneously in the wake of “zero tolerance.” Meeting in each others’ homes and churches, and communicating via Facebook messages, they surround refugee mothers with U.S. citizen motherliness, arranging bond, picking up the newly released from detention centers and driving them to church shelters — or, if the shelters are full, putting them up in hotels. They buy hundreds of backpacks and get together to stuff them with shampoo, underwear, blankets, toothbrushes, and big bags of snack foods for the road. They distribute the goods to parents and children preparing to travel to their chosen communities of resettlement.

The Tias and Abuelas want to make these sojourners as comfortable as possible, to welcome them to America. One of their big projects is accessing funds, including one administered by Facebook, that purchase airplane tickets for the travelers — no repayment necessary. Several such funds now exist, and the Tias and Abuelas think that using this money is far more decent and civilized than what ICE does, which is to demand that the immigrants’ families and “sponsors” buy bus tickets. Once the bus tickets are purchased, ICE takes traumatized, disoriented, and non-English-speaking people straight out of detention, sometimes to shelters run by religious organizations like Catholic Charities, which in South Texas has for years handed out the bus tickets pre-purchased by relatives, then dropped the refugees off at the station without food, water, or money. Or ICE bypassed the shelters and takes the released detainees directly to the bus, again with no travel supplies or spending money — and sometimes even without bus tickets. People in the community talk about immigrants who’ve spent days at the stations, begging for doughnuts and quarters until they scrounge enough to leave town.

A plane trip from South Texas to North Carolina, Miami, or Boston takes six to eight hours, with free soft drinks, coffee, and pretzels. The same trip on a bus lasts up to 50 hours and includes sleeplessness, cramping, dehydration, and hunger, with traumatized children in tow. The government, which has just finished inflicting immigrants with weeks of torture in detention, now adds a dollop of post-release torture.

Cruz did not have to suffer ICE-style travel, because she had the Tias and Abuelas, and she had me. The moment she was released from detention, a retiree and grandmother named Madeleine Sandefur picked her up and drove her halfway to Brownsville, where I met them at a convenience store. For the next three days, I treated her, as she said, “Como una reina!Like a queen. “I’m eating chicken,” she excitedly told a relative in Honduras whom she called on my cellphone. “The mattress is so good! I have my own bathroom! She bought me clothes.” (Cruz had come out of detention with prison-issue cloth shoes split down the middle of the soles, and the one pair of underwear, regulation T-shirt, and pants she was wearing. I invited her to roam the women’s clothing section at Target: She was especially happy with her new $23 sandals.)

Cruz was so easy. I’d been taking calls for weeks from detainee women at Port Isabel. Often their voices were so muffled that I could hardly hear them — and this was not solely due to the atrocious quality of the prison phone transmissions. The women sounded as though they’d lost volume from the effects of stress and horror. Many cried half way through the call, or right at the beginning. It was always about their kids and how they were rarely allowed to speak with them. There was little I could do to help beyond journalism. “I’m not a lawyer,” I would say, “I’m a reporter.” They called and called, and I ended up seeing three of them just after they got out of detention and had people like the Tias and Abuelas looking after them. With all three, I felt submerged. They grabbed onto my body suddenly, frantically, and with sobs. If they’d been drowning in a lake and I’d been a lifeguard, I would have had to be specially trained not to be pulled down by them in their sorrow.

Cruz was so different. On the phone, her voice was always bell-like, with animated clarity. And after her release, no hanging-on-for-dear-life hugs, no tears — just big smiles, repeated thank you’s, and, it seemed, a preternatural ability to know what I needed from her to feel comfortable while hosting a refugee — not just the noble principle of it, but also the dayslong, domestic reality.

I wanted her to tell me all about Port Isabel, of course: the schedules, the guards, the food, the dorms, the visit of Homeland Security head Kristjen Nielsen when the women were hidden from Nielsen by being removed to a faraway ball field for hours (“The worst day for me of all,” Cruz said. “It was terrible to be treated that way.”

She knew I wanted to know. She understood that I was a periodista. She knew that rich people — i.e., anyone with a lot more money than she — make demands. She was used to providing domestic help. She told me that on the journey north, she stopped for two weeks in Guatemala and went door to door in a well-to-do neighborhood, asking señoras to take her in with her child. (One did take her but didn’t pay her, so she hit the road northward again.) She’d been raised since age 4 by the head of her household, a 9-year-old sister, after their mother abandoned them; she had a sixth-grade education; and since age 14, she had made her living cleaning houses. She hoped to do that in America. (I suggested that eventually, she could own her own cleaning company: Her face lit up, then I was sad to see it quickly deflate at what, perhaps, was her sense of the plan’s improbability.) She saw me trying to juggle my 9-to-5 journalism in my home office, but also attend to her needs. Those needs included phone calling and doing paperwork to get her a lawyer, have her child returned to her, and arrange travel for her to North Carolina. Though I doubt she’d use the word, she saw that I have trouble multitasking.

She tasked back. She asked if she could clean. “Never,” I said, but she insisted until I said, “You’re washing your clothes? Put mine in with yours.” I went back to work and paid no more attention. Within an hour, with a broom, she had swept every cranny, gathering snaking stripes of dust bunnies, some dirty raisins, a dead water bug, and big, fat clots of gunk. She did all the dishes. She wiped my counters. Next day, Wednesday, I took her to the zoo just to get her out for a bit. July is unbearably hot in Brownsville, and the gorillas, males and females, lay on their backs in a patch of shade, stock still, bored and desolate. She lost her cheer then. “We lay on our beds all day at Port Isabel,” she said. “Like these gorillas. So many women so depressed, and all we did was sleep.” I rushed her to the baby animal petting farm, thinking that touching an immature creature, even if just a goat, might help. She stroked the kids but didn’t really seem to need to. She was more interested in the marine life house, with its water that smells like a cold sea, and its luminous, flowery jellyfish. She’d never visited a zoo, but we had to leave precipitously because her child’s social worker called from the East Coast, then her newfound lawyer. If she left the next day, Cruz learned, she could be reunited with her daughter the day after that. With the Tias and Abuelas’s connections, I got her a plane ticket. She left on Thursday morning, as cheerfully as she’d arrived.

Cruz got a welcome with heart, but many, if not most, released victims of “zero tolerance” continue in the nation’s underbelly. At 2 p.m. last weekend at the Brownsville bus station, I met a young, very dark-skinned, Central American woman with long, lank black hair, who was so cavernously thin that if she’d been a model, she would have been admonished by her agency to gain weight. She had recently passed her credible fear interview, in which she told the officer about her partner mercilessly beating her and justifying his violence with the fact that “you look like an Indian.”

She, too, was en route to North Carolina, where she would reunite with a child taken from her during the family separations.

In a just and civilized country, the government would have acknowledged the mass disaster that “zero tolerance” created for this woman and the others. It would have given her a private bathroom, a good mattress, chicken, summer sandals, and a plane ticket. Instead, ICE had dumped her at 7:30 the previous evening with no food, water, or money. Her bus didn’t leave until 2:45 p.m. the next day. She was expected to spend the night and many hours next day at the bus station.

The clock ticked. It was after 10 p.m., and a Greyhound clerk grew concerned that the station was about to close for the night, and the woman would be moved to an outdoor waiting area that was overrun that evening with rowdy men. Afraid for the women, the clerk called a Tias and Abuelas member who earlier had left her number at the counter. She rushed to the station, took the woman to a hotel, and provided her with breakfast and clothing the next day, as well as a backpack with blanket and snacks. This was accidental aid, dependent on the kindness of the clerk — and the chancy resources of a group of generous but random citizens.

The government is no longer a government. Instead, it is a centralized blanket of loathing and sadistic xenophobia, overlaid with an erratic national patchwork of private conscience. That luminous conscience blooms everywhere, including in the country’s underbelly.

That underbelly is the Greyhound bus, from which I got a call last weekend. It came from Lorena, another former Port Isabel detainee whom I had spoken with while she was locked up. Lorena, too, passed her credible fear interview, but she did not call to tell me. Nor did she make connections with the Tias and Abuelas. Instead, she was reunited with her 16-year-old son, whom she’d brought to America after gangs in Honduras had insisted he join them, and had beaten and threatened him with murder when he refused. The gangs had also left Lorena without house after tearing it apart, starting with the windows and doors.

ICE took Lorena and her son to a church-run shelter in San Juan, Texas. There, she was provided with bus tickets, but no money, no water, no food. Oddly, the one thing she did get was a burner phone. She looked at it askance, puzzled. (Among the immigrants, rumors were flying that the government was tapping these phones.) She and her son left for Miami at 6 a.m. on Saturday. By 6 p.m. they were suffering severely from thirst and hunger. They called me on the burner phone. “No one on the bus speaks Spanish,” Lorena said. She had no idea where they were.

“Do you see someone who looks kind? Maybe a middle-aged woman?” I asked.

“Yes,” Lorena said. “My seatmate.”

“OK. Hand the phone to her and I’ll talk.”

The woman had a Midwest accent mixed with Southern. She said her name was Tara. I began imploring with keywords: “refugees,” “very hungry,” “her son,” “help?”

I hadn’t finished my sentence before she interrupted me. “No problem. I understand! Totally! These poor people. I’ve got cookies, crackers, peanut butter sandwiches! Twenty-five sandwiches and I’m going to take care of them all the way to Alabama!”

I thanked her profusely and asked about her own life. It was then I realized that Tara and Lorena, if they’d spoken a common language, would have had much to commune about.

“I was smashed in the face in Christopher, Illinois, with a baseball bat,” Tara said. “I ended up in a hospital in St. Louis. There I got spirited away by a Christian cult. The cult took me to Beaumont, Texas, but I got away. I am escaping as we speak, back to Christopher.”

“I’m schizo-affective,” Tara continued. “And clairvoyant. But I just got my shot two days ago. So right now, I’m OK.”

Lorena later told me that Tara shared the peanut butter sandwiches and water just as she promised, all the way into Alabama. “I will never forget her,” Lorena said.

One of our country’s defining stories, our national fantasy and romance, is the road trip. The highway is our individualist libido, the Greyhound our unchurched confessional — though the intimate conversations that occur between seatmates often touch on the Bible, from the New Testament to the Old. The journey is as drifting as the ocean, as dreamy as escape, as weighty as the past and light as the future — but only when traveled by choice.

These days, traveling the highway by choice is a privilege of the citizenry. When it comes to our newest Americans, “On the Road” is just additional “zero tolerance.” More mandatory suffering, with a latrine stinking at the back of a bus.

Cruz has phoned me a few times since arriving in North Carolina and getting her 10-year-old daughter back. At first, she was her usual self: brimming with positivity. But this week was different. The child is having severe night terrors, Cruz tells me. She bolts up in bed at 2 a.m. screaming, crying, and shaking. When wakened, she can’t remember the dreams.

In addition, the little girl jumps out of bed in the morning and obsessively starts wiping counters, sweeping, and washing dishes.

It turns out that at the shelter where she stayed, the children had morning chores.

Cruz wants to get her daughter therapy for the night terrors — and for the repetitive cleaning behaviors. But then, Cruz herself has cleaned repetitively since she was a girl. Will she and her daughter “choose” to do the same in America? That question is, perhaps, their fear.

Meanwhile, mother and daughter are grateful they did not have to take the bus. And they remember with pleasure their plane ride through the clouds.

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