“Can you play it?” Cindy Madrid asked. In the audio recording, children can be heard sobbing desperately after being separated from their parents at the border – and among them is Madrid’s six-year-old daughter.
She had heard part of it on the news, after investigative nonprofit ProPublica obtained it and published it online. “I want to hear the whole thing,” she said.
Children wail inconsolably. The words “Mami” and “Papá” are heard over and over again. They are cries no parent should ever have to hear.
“We have an orchestra here,” a man says in the recording. “What’s missing is a conductor.”
“It’s sad they would say that about a suffering child,” Madrid told CNN Thursday in a phone interview from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Port Isabel detention center in Texas.
“I’m grateful, though,” she said. “No one would know what the children are going through if not for the audio.”
Then she heard the only voice she recognized. It’s her daughter Alisson, whom Madrid last saw 10 days ago at a Texas detention center. An immigration official called out the girl’s name and took her away without explanation.
Alisson can be heard begging for someone to call her aunt. With ease, she recites the phone number – which her mother said she memorized during the 17-day journey from their native El Salvador to the US border.
“Mommy says I’ll go with my aunt and that she’ll come to pick me up as quickly as possible,” Alisson said.
As painful as it was to hear Alisson’s pleas, Madrid said she found solace in knowing the audio recording exposed the childrens’ anguished cries to the world.
“It’s so sad to listen to so many children,” she said. “So many children who had never been separated from their moms. What is happening is so unfair.”
At the Port Isabel detention center, Madrid shares a large room with nearly 40 other mothers who have also been separated from their children by immigration authorities.
“There are many more rooms full of women going through the same thing,” she said. “The majority are from Honduras. Four of us from El Salvador.”
As Madrid spoke Thursday afternoon, first lady Melania Trump made an unannounced and hastily planned trip to a children’s shelter in McAllen, Texas, to get what the White House described as a firsthand look at the migrant crisis.
“As a mother she must understand,” she said when told of the official visit. “Perhaps she has never been separated from her children, but she should understand that a mother will do anything for her children.”
Her daughter is only one of the 2,300 children already taken from parents awaiting prosecution as part of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy. On Wednesday, the President appeared to cave to political pressure on the issue by signing an executive order intended to keep more families together at the border. The order didn’t say anything about whether the 2,300 children already separated from their families would be reunited with them.
The government initially said those families would remain apart; officials later said that the families would be reunited, but there is little clarity as to how.
“It’s maddening because at every moment I ask myself, ‘How is she? Has she eaten? Are they taking care of her? Do they shower her?’” Madrid said.
When the news of the order appeared on the detention center televisions Wednesday, the dormitories erupted with applause.
“All the women were thanking God,” she said. “There were tears of joy from the hope that we can soon be with our children again.”
But Madrid said the mothers have received little information about how they might be reunited with their kids.
“They told us that based on the order the President signed we would be reunited with our children, but that we needed to have patience because there was a lot of paperwork for the children and they needed find an adequate place to be with them,” she said.
There isn’t much for the detained mothers to do except to yearn for a glimpse of their children. They watch television, including news reports about their plight. They sleep, pray or sit around chatting. Few know anything about where their children are or how they’re doing, Madrid said. She has made numerous calls to the shelter housing Alisson.
“No one answers,” she said. “I have lost count of how many calls.”
Looking back, Madrid said she never would have made the journey from El Salvador to the US-Mexico border if she knew this would happen. She wanted to offer her daughter something more than the poverty and violence of her homeland, where Alisson was once nearly taken from her arms during a kidnapping attempt at a market.
On May 25, they left for the border, she said. The usually perilous trip was mostly uneventful. That is, until they crossed the Rio Grande into the United States at the Mexican border city of Reynosa on June 11. Within minutes, they were in federal custody.
Madrid recalled spending the day with Alisson in la hielera – the Spanish word for “freezer” that migrants and guards use to describe the frigid government holding cells. They covered themselves with Mylar blankets in a room with a concrete bench. They were fed a piece of bread with a slice of ham.
About 8 hours after their arrival in the United States, Madrid said, she heard an immigration official call out her daughter’s name. Alisson was taken away. Madrid asked why. There was no explanation.
The next time Madrid heard Alisson’s voice was on the audio recording of the weeping children at the migrant shelter.
“God put an angel in her path to record that audio,” she said. “That started everything. That person will be blessed more than any of us. My daughter helped bring positive change for the mothers. … She stood up for all of us.”
CNN’s Rosa Flores and Devon M. Sayers reported from Texas, Desiree Adib from New York and Ray Sanchez reported and wrote from New York City.