Originally published by USA Today
About five weeks ago, a Guatemalan teen climbed a 15-foot border wall made of block and steel columns and illegally entered the country at Yuma, Arizona. Border Patrol agents arrested himand took him up the road to a holding facility in Phoenix.
For 20 days, Edmilson Aguilar Punay says, he saw and experienced how the United States handled immigrant children after an April policy change – a change that created a national outcry.
Edmilson, 16, finally was allowed to travel to Cincinnati, where his mother and siblings live, in early June. But first, his attorney said, he suffered trauma from being in captivity and witnessing the effects of family separation on other migrant youths. Government documents confirm the timeline, attorney Julie Leftwich LeMaster said.
Edmilson was one of about 30 young men and boys – some as young as 5 – squeezed into an office-sized, windowless room in a U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement processing center in Phoenix, Edmilson said.
I saw boys, women, pregnant women, women with children, children by themselves, and men,” he said through an interpreter. “They put us in a room, and this room was rounded-up young men. And they brought the kids in.
A single toilet sat in the center of the open room.
“The smell was very bad. It wasn’t even separated by a wall,” Edmilson said. “They said we had air conditioning, (but) it was very hot in the room.”
When guards brought in the youngest boy, he started to cry and scream for his mother.
“And we asked him, ‘What is your problem? How can we help?’ ” Edmilson said. “He said, ‘They took my mom away from here.’ We called an immigration officer, and we asked her about this child’s mom. And they told him, ‘Your mom is there. She will come later.’
“And the 11-year-old boy said, ‘No, his mom is not coming back because she was deported to Guatemala.’ And they left this child there by himself.
“There were other rooms where there were just children in the same situation. Their parents were (deported).”
Edmilson did not know the time, whether it was night or day. They were fed sugary fruit juice and undercooked pre-packaged containers of chicken soup.
He only used the toilet once in two days.
As Edmilson spoke Wednesday afternoon with The Cincinnati Enquirer, President Donald Trump signed an executive order meant to end the separation of families at the border – part of a crackdown on illegal immigration that took more than 2,300 children from their parents.
The president wants to detain families as a unit for indefinite periods, rather than the 20-day limit called for in a 1997 court order. Critics say Trump’s order offers no assurances or plans for reuniting the already-separated migrant children with their parents.
Edmilson said he can’t get out of his head the sound of the 5-year-old boy in Phoenix who cried and screamed for his mother at the ICE detention center.
“You could just hear cellphones ringing and children crying,” he said. “Where there were small children, you could hear them crying all the time.”
Edmilson is a new client of Cincinnati’s Immigrant and Refugee Law Center. Opened in February, the center provides free legal services to local immigrants and refugees.
At Wednesday’s interview, he wore black sneakers, dark khaki pants and a white Cleveland Cavaliers T-shirt that his mother bought at Target. He sat on a brown couch in the law center’s common area as he described his first day in ICE custody.
The juvenile migrants were told to form a single line, Edmilson said. Officers handed them forms to fill out and another single sheet of paper that listed their rights. A female ICE officer carrying a notebook interviewed him and asked his age.
“I told her 16,” said Edmilson, who’s tall and has a lean, athletic build. “She told me, ‘I don’t believe that is your age.’ “
They were walked inside and told to sit on a concrete floor. Officers asked him for his name and where he was going.
“I said, ‘to see my mom,’ ” he said.
He was put in the hot holding cell. He said he remembered it was “3 in the morning.” Then he lost track of time.
“They kept bringing more and more people in,” Edmilson said. For emphasis, he pointed to a large private office at the immigrant law center and said the room with the toilet was about that size.
At times, he said, the room became so crowded that the only personal space he had was that occupied by his two feet. He could not lay down. Every now and then, if space opened up, he would keep his feet pinned together but drop into a crouch, especially while eating.
An ICE agent entered the room and shouted his name. He went to another room with the officer. She asked for his mother’s address in Cincinnati. “I told her,” he said.
Other questions followed: Who is your mom living with? Where does she work? Is she here legally? He answered. She lives with her children. She works in a warehouse. She does not have legal status.
Other ICE officers came in. They asked about his father. He said he didn’t know where his father was but that he and his mother were not together. They took his fingerprints.
They returned him to the overcrowded holding cell with the toilet.
After two days and two nights, officers told Edmilson that he was going to be taken to a detention center. He remembered that it was not a long bus ride from the original facility.
At the new center – possibly one of the private Southwest Key shelters that have a government contract to house migrant children in the Phoenix area – guards gave him clothes, including socks and sandals. He was allowed to take a shower.
“It looked like a school,” he said of the shelter.
Southwest Key operates detention centers as a government subcontractor across the border region. ABC News reported that Texas state inspectors identified 246 child care violations at Southwest Key holding facilities.
Edmilson waited in a room that had a television and a couch. He said guards treated him better there.
Then they told him that he was going to be flown from Phoenix to New York City to another detention center. He remembered its name: Children’s Village Shelter. It is a private juvenile detention center in Dobbs Ferry, New York, about 25 miles north of the city. He spent three weeks there.
Children’s Village was named in an investigation published Wednesday by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Children’s Village is one of the dozens of private facilities receiving billions of dollars from the federal government to house unaccompanied minors or children separated from their parents. Reveal reported that in 2013 an unaccompanied Guatemalan boy was sexually abused there by an older resident.
Edmilson was flown June 6 from New York to Cincinnati.
He lives with his mother, who has been in Cincinnati for a decade, along with three siblings – ages 25, 22 and “6 or 7, I’m not sure,” he said – and two aunts.
LeMaster, executive director of the immigrant center, said she is potentially going to file for Special Immigrant Juvenile classification, an asylum claim or both for Edmilson.
“Once we have all of the details of his background, he will exemplify why these children come here,” she said. “What he experienced in detention, what he witnessed, it epitomizes the cruelty and brutality of our immigration system.”
Besides legal services, the center will soon begin providing direct on-site access to psychologists and trauma specialists for its migrant clients.
Patrick Reynolds-Berry, a case management supervisor at Su Casa Hispanic Center, is a licensed counselor. He has not treated Edmilson but has worked with several dozen unaccompanied minors and other migrant children.
“So many layers of trauma,” he said. “They’ve been separated from their parents for many years and have stayed with a grandparent or uncle in their country of origin. They’ve experienced trauma there, which is the impetus for them fleeing.
“They experience trauma in the migration experience. They experience trauma in the holding cells, which can be pretty terrible.”
Edmilson said he made the trek to the United States to be with his mother, whom he missed badly after 10 years of living apart, and “to have a bright future.” There are few jobs, he said, and little opportunity in Guatemala for a young man who does not want a life of crime as a member of the MS-13, Barrio 18 or any other number of violent street gangs.