Audio from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility obtained by ProPublica brings home the reality of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy that has seen thousands of migrant children separated from their families.
The recording is a mix of adults talking and children sobbing uncontrollably, asking for their loved ones.
Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.
The baritone voice of a Border Patrol agent booms above the crying. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.”
Until recently, the public has had no way of knowing what goes on as children are being removed from their families – the Trump administration has kept detention facilities from public view.
Even as officials began allowing journalists to tour detainment centers, no video footage has been allowed and interviews with the children were prohibited.
The audio obtained by ProPublica breaks that silence. It was recorded last week inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility. The person who made the recording asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. That person gave the audio to Jennifer Harbury, a well-known civil rights attorney who has lived and worked for four decades in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border with Mexico. Harbury provided it to ProPublica. She said the person who recorded it was a client who “heard the children’s weeping and crying, and was devastated by it.”
Throughout the recording, a little girl can be heard asking to call her aunt, reciting the number she has committed to memory.
By the end of the tape, the girl is taken to make the phone call, but ProPublica decided to call the number as well to follow up with the girl’s aunt and ask about the conversation with her niece.
“It was the hardest moment in my life,” she said. “Imagine getting a call from your 6-year-old niece. She’s crying and begging me to go get her. She says, ‘I promise I’ll behave, but please get me out of here. I’m all alone.’”
The aunt said what made the call even more painful was that there was nothing she could do. She and her 9-year-old daughter are seeking asylum in the United States after immigrating here two years ago for the exact same reasons and on the exact same route as her sister and her niece. They are from a small town called Armenia, about an hour’s drive northwest of the Salvadoran capital, but well within reach of its crippling crime waves. She said gangs were everywhere in El Salvador: “They’re on the buses. They’re in the banks. They’re in schools. They’re in the police. There’s nowhere for normal people to feel safe.”
According to the aunt, her sister and niece began their journey to the U.S. a month ago, paying a smuggler $7,000 to guide them to the border.
After arriving, the two were separated as her sister was sent to an immigration detention facility near Port Isabel, Texas.
The aunt said that Alison has been moved out of the Border Patrol facility to a shelter where she has a real bed. But she said that authorities at the shelter have warned the girl that her mother, 29-year-old Cindy Madrid, might be deported without her.
“I know she’s not an American citizen,” the aunt said of her niece. “But she’s a human being. She’s a child. How can they treat her this way?”
The aunt also said she is worried about trying to help her niece, as she fears it could jeopardize her own chance at being granted asylum, particularly in light of the Trump administration's decision to cease awarding asylum to individuals fleeing gang and domestic violence.