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'You end up damaged': Families separated at the border continue healing with new services

Oscar, left, holds his wife's hand at their apartment in Charlotte. The family left Honduras to escape threats of violence. But their experience with family separation at the border continues to affect their mental health.
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
Oscar, left, holds his wife Glenda's hand at their apartment in Charlotte. The family left Honduras to escape threats of violence. But their experience with family separation at the border continues to affect their mental health.

Thousands of children and parents affected by forced separations at the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration are now getting services, like mental health care and legal support. That’s due to a class-action lawsuit, Ms. L vs. ICE, which reached a settlement earlier this month.

The settlement, which still must be approved by the courts, will limit family separations over the next eight years to cases involving national security, the child’s safety, medical emergencies and certain criminal warrants. The settlement will also continue to reunite families who were separated under the Trump-era “zero-tolerance” policy that started in 2017.

Kate Melloy Goettel, legal director at the American Immigration Council, explained that many people have been hard to track, due to poor record keeping and speedy deportations.

“Some of the families were in the United States with children at shelters in New York and Chicago, with parents stuck in detention centers on the southwest border, but sadly some were even already deported," she said.

"Some of the parents were already deported and needed to be brought back into the country to be reunified. That process is still ongoing.”

So far, the federal government has completed 3,126 reunifications. More than 1,000 children have not been confirmed as reunified with their families, however, and new cases continue to be identified through the Family Reunification Task Force.

The Ms. L settlement will also provide access to benefits like a work permit, three years of behavioral health care, a year of medical and housing assistance, and immigration legal services for six years. The mental health care part is important, Goettel said, to treat resulting cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

“Being physically removed from a parent is going to create lifelong trauma and really interrupt the sort of attachment that is critical to parent and child,” Goettel said.

“The provision of mental health services and receiving mental health care is one way to try to work through that trauma.”

Healing from their journey to Charlotte

Oscar and Glenda are asylum seekers who fled extortion and gang violence in Honduras. They now live in Charlotte. Both were separated from their children at the border in 2017. They’re now represented by the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, and they’ve already accessed benefits as plaintiffs in the Ms. L vs. ICE case, which has involved outreach to families for years now.

Oscar arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border first with their then-8-year-old son. After immigration agents separated them, he wouldn’t see his son for more than a month.

“They didn’t tell me where they were going to send him. They just took him from me,” he said. “After 15 days, they called me to an office. I went to speak with him and that’s when I learned that the boy was in New York.”

Glenda arrived later with their other son, who was separated from her in the same ICE facility. She refers to the facility as "la hielera," or "the icebox," due to the frigid temperatures inside.

“They try to threaten you and tell you that they’re going to take your children. They say you don’t have a heart and that you brought the child to suffer. But they don’t know why you came here. They say you brought this child here to suffer and you aren’t a good mother, you aren’t a good father,” she said.

“They told me that for bringing my child here, they were going to donate him to a family that would treat him better.”

Goettel says these stories were common among migrants who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border from 2017 to 2018.

“We heard many stories of both Border Patrol and ICE officers taunting the parents and talking about giving the children away or being deported without their children. And that was just so terrifying,” Goettel said.

After they were reunited and connected with the Ms. L lawsuit, Oscar, Glenda and their sons were offered mental health services to help them overcome the effects of their separation. Glenda says she accepted the offer, and so did the children. Connecting with a counselor helped her understand her night terrors and sleep more peacefully.

“What has stayed with me are the headaches. There’s like this pressure,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll see a person and it makes my heart race, thinking it’s them [Border Patrol]. My hands start to sweat. My therapist told me that when that happens, to try to remove it from my mind.”

Oscar decided not to accept counseling, despite the pain he still carries.

“I mean, it’s always the same, the nightmares that stay with you. I haven’t gone to a psychologist, but yeah, you end up damaged,” he said.

Their 14-year-old has been in treatment, but he’s still affected. Glenda says he wakes up screaming in the night and he’s terrified of law enforcement.

More information about family reunification can be found on together.gov. Families separated between 2017 and January 2021 may qualify for services.

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This story was produced through a collaboration between WFAE and La Noticia. You canread it in Spanishat La Noticia. Puedes leer la nota en español en La Noticia.

Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.