Fifty-Six Days of Separation The Scars Left Behind by U.S. Migration Policy

Meridith Kohut/ DER SPIEGEL

By , and

Part 2: A Frantic Search for Samir


There was a time when Donald Trump also saw the benefit of such people. During the construction of the Trump Tower in Manhattan, he employed 200 Polish workers who were in the country illegally. For the construction of his luxury hotel in Washington, D.C., he used cheap labor from Central America. It isn't totally clear when Trump began seeing these people as a danger, but during his campaign, he must have realized that his hateful tirades against immigrants had struck a nerve.

In addition to the construction of a wall along the Mexican border, he also demanded that the estimated 11 million people who live illegally in the country be quickly removed by way of mass deportations. Then he became president and his rhetoric became policy. In early 2017, Trump blocked the issuing of travel visas to citizens from seven Muslim majority countries. He then implemented stricter border policies and ditched an Obama-era program protecting 700,000 immigrant youth, most of them from Latin America, from deportation.

It isn't always easy to differentiate between what Trump has only said he was going to do and what he has actually done. The idea of blocking the influx of immigrants by separating families first made its way into the media in March 2017. John Kelly, who was secretary of homeland security at the time, mentioned it on CNN. Then the issue disappeared again. But in the Texan city of El Paso, a secret program began -- one which looks a lot like a kind of blueprint for what the zero-tolerance policy would later become.

All migrants who illegally crossed the border near El Paso between July and November found themselves the subject of criminal charges. Prior to that, illegal border crossings were often treated as a minor infraction and ignored. Under Obama, it was standard that families, after a brief period of imprisonment together, would be freed to await their asylum proceedings or they would be immediately deported. But the Trump administration realized that filing criminal charges opened up an opportunity. The law allows the state to separate parents from their children for the duration of the proceedings.

The El Paso experiment proved successful. An internal government report noted that illegal border crossings had dropped by 64 percent as a result of the family separation policy.

'We Have to Give Your Son a Bath'

Lying on her bed in the shelter in New York and recalling the moment when Border Patrol agents led her into an interrogation room on the morning of June 2, Levis says she knew nothing of these things. The initial reception facilities in Texas are known among migrants as "hieleras," or iceboxes, because of the low temperatures at which they are kept. She didn't understand that the guards took her shoelaces because a father had hanged himself a short time before after his children were taken away from him. She was surprised, though, by a cell door on which was written "6-12 years."

Samir sat on her lap crying.

"We've made it," she told him, her voice calm. "Soon we'll be free."

Border guards had intercepted them not far from where her traffickers had dropped them off. They had spent the night in a metal cage wrapped in aluminum foil blankets. Levis was exhausted and could hardly pay attention to the questions.

How old are you? Where are you from?

Suddenly, a guard came in and grabbed Samir's arm. The boy clutched Levis' T-shirt.

"Ma'am," the man said. "We have to give your son a bath."

Levis tried to stall him. "I'll do it myself later," she said.

"Ma'am," he insisted. "You can't go into a washroom where other boys are showering."

Then, Levis says, he tore Samir out of her lap. And Samir screamed louder than he ever had before.

"The kid is spoiled," the guard hissed. "He has mommyitis."

Levis stares emptily at the bookshelves. "It all went so fast," she says. "I couldn't even say goodbye."

Levis only began to realize that it was intentional three days later as she was sitting in leg shackles in one of those mass court proceedings that had become a daily occurrence on the border. Dozens of migrants, brought before a judge in a darkened courtroom in the city of McAllen, stood up to tell their stories. One of the mothers in the group said that her child had been ripped straight from her breast during feeding. A father said that his handicapped son was no longer there when he returned from the restroom.

"They were afraid that we would try to defend ourselves," Levis says.

She was then taken to a different detention center, located some 170 miles (270 kilometers) to the north on the arid outskirts of Laredo. All her hopes were now invested in a flyer that a court-appointed defense attorney had given her as she was being led away. "Dial 699 if you want to find out more about your child," it read.

Levis' attempts to call the number proved fruitless. The line was constantly busy, and when she did manage to get through, a slightly annoyed voice told her that it could take some time until the system was able to locate her son. When she heard several days later that Samir was in a home, the voice said: "I am not authorized to tell you in what city he is."

Howling Like a Coyote

There was no internet in the prison where she was held and when the news came on the TV, an invisible hand would quickly change the channel to a soap opera. Levis was completely cut off from the world outside. It was so cold in her cell that she stuffed scraps of paper into the slats of the air conditioning unit. When she would break into tears at night, the guards would laugh at her, saying she howled like a coyote.

She began wondering if she had done the right thing by promising Samir more and more great adventures as they traveled from city to city on their way north. Or by pretending that the migration prison they landed in for awhile in Mexico was actually a hotel. Had she expected too much from him?

"When I first sat across from Levis, separated by a pane of glass and speaking over the phone," says lawyer Ricardo de Anda, "it broke my heart. There was nothing else I could do but promise to find Samir."

One morning in June, de Anda is sitting in his legal practice in the center of Laredo wearing a cowboy hat and a pin-striped suit. Below the window is a cowhide sofa while the walls are adorned with pictures of Che Guevara and Abraham Lincoln. In his Twitter bio, de Anda describes himself as an "enemy of the white-right."

Shocked by reports of the mass criminal proceedings like the one in McAllen, de Anda had left a business card at the prison gates. Levis was one of the first to call him. Dozens of women followed, and the only clue they could provide him with to help him find their children was a so-called "Alien Number" each migrant is assigned upon entry to the U.S.

De Anda found children in Texas. He found them in New Jersey and New York. He tracked down Samir in Phoenix. When the whole thing started becoming too much for him, he issued an appeal on Twitter -- one that would catapult him to a whole new level.

De Anda is 62 years old. For the vast majority of his career, he was a small-time, border town lawyer who spent most of his time taking care of his ranch. But now, he suddenly had Michael Avenatti on the phone asking him if he needed a partner.

"Wooowwww," says de Anda.

My Prince, My Fighter

Avenatti has become one of America's best-known lawyers, propelled into the limelight by representing the porn star Stormy Daniels in a legal complaint filed against Trump. He has more than a half-million followers on Twitter, where he wages his own private war against the president. It is possible that Avenatti saw the family separation issue primarily as a source of fresh ammunition, but de Anda needed the help.

When they visited Levis the next day, they pushed a sheet of paper through the slot beneath the pane of glass and asked her to write a letter to Samir. Levis sat down on the floor and wrote.

Samir, love of my life,

I hope you are doing well. I am so sorry about what happened. My soul hurts, but I want you to know that I didn't leave you. I know you are suffering, but soon we will once again sing and pray together. When we get out of here, we'll go to the zoo like I promised. You always wanted to see the animals, the dolphins and fish, the penguins, even if you always said that you were afraid they would eat you. Oh, and the Spiderman toys that I promised, you'll have those soon too. You are my prince, my fighter.

I love you.

Two days later, de Anda and Avenatti flew to Phoenix.

"When we told Samir that we had a letter from his mother," says de Anda, "he didn't believe us. I assured him that Levis loved him, but he insisted it wasn't true. Only when he saw the bus that she had drawn on the border of the letter did he begin to thaw. At the end, we asked Samir to draw something. He sketched a woman with muscles and a wand who was the protector of three figures depicting him, his brother and his sister. When I later showed the drawing to Levis, she broke down in such a way that I simply didn't know what to do."

The home in Phoenix is a low, brick building with a welcome sign hanging next to the entrance. Surveillance cameras and high fences ensure that the 128 children who live here are unable to leave the premises.

Phoenix is one of 27 sites in the country where the organization Southwest Key Programs operates such homes. De Anda says the company is sitting on a goldmine. For the fiscal year 2018, the Trump administration signed a contract with Southwest Key Programs worth $458 million. To make room for the influx of children, they began buying cheap properties across the country.

The children are tended to by case managers, social workers and psychologists and go to school for six hours each day. In their free time, they can watch TV or play basketball. Former Southwest Key employees, who were no longer able to work there with a clear conscience, say they were not allowed to hug crying children to comfort them. In June, it was revealed that children with behavioral issues in Texas were medicated to calm them down. One 10-year-old boy from Brazil told the Washington Post that a five-year-old from Guatemala who was in the same home had been "vaccinated" several times a day.

Whether Samir was also given medications is unclear. But it is known that during his first week at the home, he cried nonstop. He would repeatedly cry out that he didn't want to stay there, and when he lashed out, his hands were bound to his chest. De Anda learned about these details from Samir's case manager, who insisted on using Samir's second name, Lloyd, when speaking of him -- almost as though he were trying to erase his identity.

'Not My Fault'

After 22 days, de Anda was able to arrange a telephone call between Levis and Samir for the first time. Levis shudders when recalling the conversation.

"Samir, are you okay?" "Yes." "What are you doing?" "Nothing." "Listen my angel, this isn't my fault."

Then Samir lapsed into a long period of silence. The next time Levis called, he held his hands over his ears before running out of the room. One time, when Levis' mother called him, he disavowed her.

"You know," a friendly woman's voice told Lilian, "when the children arrive here, they change."

Members of the Brooklyn Heights parish where Levis and Samir are now staying have promised to find a psychologist for Samir. Because as long as he doesn't open up, his experiences will remain a black hole that is only rarely penetrated by light.

One time when he comes into the library, he is wearing a hat and a large overcoat that he found in a closet. His upper body is bent over a cane. Later, while playing with Legos, he says the costume isn't just a game.

"We started a family in the home," Samir says. "There were mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. The other children called me 'abuelito,' grandfather, because I took care of the smaller ones. I even grew a gray beard, but I shaved it off."

When Samir now does something wrong or forgets something, he says: "After all, I'm old." The role of grandfather is his survival strategy, not unlike the fantasy world he invented and in which he spends hours at a time.

In that world, Samir is a spy, walking through the neighborhood with a magnifying glass scanning his surroundings for suspicious looking people. His enemies, he says, are all-powerful "sea agents" who wear green or blue clothes, just like the people who had control over his life over the past several weeks. These agents from Samir's fantasy world have set up surveillance cameras everywhere -- in the trees outside or in the library lamps. They kidnap mothers and their children and pull them down to the sea floor.

Chain-Link Cages

"Once," says Samir, "when they chained me up down there, Spiderman luckily came by and got me out."

In mid-June, the lawyer Michael Avenatti posted Levis' letter to Samir on Twitter and the tweet received 35,000 likes. Levis knew nothing about it, but she became something of a symbol of a deeply divided country.

"We need to make America America again," Avenatti said on CNN.

Newspapers began writing stories about an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, illustrated by photos showing children sitting inside chain-link cages. Human rights activists told stories of teenagers changing the diapers of small children. A recording was released on which young boys and girls could be heard crying for their parents.

Americans were disgusted. They began wondering what kind of country they wanted to be. And how much compassion they could afford to show at a time when millions were displaced around the world and the calls for a sealed border were growing louder.

When furious Americans began protesting in front of the homes, Trump said they had fallen victim to a media fairy tale. Just days later, though, he signed a decree putting an end to the family separation policy. "We don't like seeing families separated," Trump said with a forced smile.

But he didn't say anything about what should happen with people like Levis and Samir who had already been separated.

Trump's attention immediately turned to his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but a judge in San Diego ordered that parents must be allowed to speak with their children on the phone within 10 days. She then ordered that all families be reunited by July 26. It was an order that triggered a kind of disarray that many didn't think was possible in a country like the United States. There had been a plan in place for separating families. But there was never a strategy for reuniting them.

DNA and Birth Certificates

Whereas the parents were under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, a section of the Department of Health had been charged with taking care of the children. But the databases of the two ministries are not linked. It was left to people working long hours at non-governmental organizations to assemble lists and match up names that they had dug up themselves.

Biographies were analyzed, birth certificates verified, and DNA samples compared. At the end of July, the authorities said that around 1,000 parents were "not eligible" for reunification with their children. In one case, it was said that the mother suffered from a contagious disease. Many parents were the subject of criminal proceedings. Dozens could no longer be found because officials had forgotten to take down their contact details when they were released.

As if they were incorrectly addressed FedEx packages, children were repeatedly sent to the wrong prisons, even though their parents had long since been sent out of the country. Many of them had been forced to consent to their deportation, having been told that it was the quickest way to see their children again.

Levis said she refused to do so.

On July 3, she was transferred from Laredo to the Port Isabel Detention Center. When in the prison yard, she could smell the salty sea air. After she told a psychologist that she wanted to kick down a door, he threatened her with solitary confinement.

Even though Samir hadn't yet been cleared for air travel for the flight to his mother in Texas, Levis was officially released on the morning of July 17. She handed in her prison uniform and was transferred from Alpha tract to Bravo tract. Because her prisoner ID was no longer valid, her phone privileges had been revoked -- and because the computer system listed her as discharged, de Anda was no longer allowed to come in to see her. Levis remained in this limbo for 10 days; it seemed to her almost as though she no longer existed. Then, just hours after the official deadline for family reunifications had expired, the guard shook her awake in the middle of the night.

A 'Bad Hombre'

From March to May, Border Patrol agents arrested around 40,000 people per month along the Rio Grande. Then the numbers dropped slightly. It's difficult to say why -- whether it was the policy of family separation, the extreme summer heat in Texas or the deteriorating social climate in the U.S.

Even without Trump's zero-tolerance policy, illegal entries to the U.S. were at their lowest in over 40 years. The question then becomes: How high is the price for Trump's family separation stunt? What does it do to a country's self-image when its leaders inflict lifelong emotional scars on thousands of children? How damaging is it to a democracy when the governing elite treats a large minority in their own country as criminals? What does it mean for the rest of the West when such a thing happens in the U.S., of all countries?

The trauma of family separation didn't end with the expiration of the July 26 deadline. Children as young as four are still facing asylum judges on their own in court proceedings called to rule over their deportation. In August, de Anda and Avenatti flew to Guatemala to personally return a child to his mother, who had previously been deported. Trump is a "bad hombre," says Levis' mother Lilian. She hopes that her daughter returns home soon. Jarends, Levis' oldest son, asks frequently about Samir, with whom he used to imagine they were mighty pirates.

Levis and Samir now live around the corner in a new house belonging to the church, a home with a real bathroom. Levis has begun learning English and Samir is set to start school in September. They are the first steps into a new life, but nobody knows how long it will last.

In early June, Attorney General Sessions said that organized crime and domestic violence in countries like Honduras are not grounds for asylum. In all likelihood, the country that Levis has always dreamed of will soon deport her and Samir.

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