Immigrant Kids Held in Shelters: ‘They Told us to Behave, or We’d be Here Forever’

BOSTON — When the 8-year-old stepped off a plane here earlier this month with freshly cut bangs and a shelter-issued sweatsuit, she was met by crowds and television cameras and finally, in a carpeted airport conference room, by the mother who had been taken from her two months earlier at the border.

But now, a day after that joyous reunion, the girl from Guatemala was shoving a toddler who had tried to give her a hug and a kiss at a welcoming party in the suburbs. Now she was screaming and crying and telling the boy to stay away.

This is what two months in a Texas shelter had taught Sandy Gonzalez.

“They always kept the boys and the girls separate,” the second-grader explained last week. “And they punished us if we went near each other.”

Under court order, federal officials have begun to return the more than 2,500 immigrant children taken from their parents under the Trump administration’s short-lived family separation policy. Across the country, mothers and fathers are slowly being reunited with the children they last saw being led away by Border Patrol agents weeks or months ago.

Experts warn that many of these children may be deeply traumatized by their experiences. Their voices have seldom been heard during the frenzied debate over family separation.

“I felt like a prisoner,” said Diogo De Olivera Filho, a 9-year-old from Brazil who spent five weeks at a shelter in Chicago, including three weeks in isolation after getting chickenpox. When he got lonely and left his quarantined room to see other kids, he said the shelter put up a gate to keep him in. “I felt like a dog,” he said.

He and Sandy are among the six children recently released from the shelters who described to The Washington Post what their time separated from their parents was like.

One 11-year-old boy from Guatemala who spent six weeks in the same Chicago shelter as Diogo said he had to ask permission to hug his sister. Some of the children said they now suffer from nightmares. A few, including Sandy, have had difficulty trusting their parents again.

By Michael E. Miller for THE WASHINGTON POST
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