Newly obtained audio reveals the anguish of parents separated from their children, as it pours from them in immigration court while a judge finds them ineligible to stay in the United States.
In recordings of two court proceedings obtained by CNN, two women who have been separated from their children plead with an immigration judge to reunite them, as he asks them if they have any evidence to back up their asylum claims.
Their attorneys also ask the judge to give them another chance to make their cases, citing their mental health after the prolonged separation from their children.
In both cases, however, the judge denies the requests, and orders the women deported from the country. Both women were told they could speak with their deportation officer about being reunited with their children. CNN has received permission from the women to share the audio of their hearings, but is not identifying them for their protection.
While the hearings are just two of thousands of similar proceedings regularly held across the country, they are an indication of the struggles of parents who have been separated from their children for weeks or longer in their quest to stay in the United States. Thousands of parents were separated from their children at the border under the Trump administration’s now-reversed “zero tolerance” policy that prosecuted all adults caught crossing the border illegally, including parents with their children.
Advocates for the immigrants broadly say the parents are being rejected for pursuing asylum at record numbers, in part because they are so distraught.
The hearings were conducted before Judge Robert Powell at the immigration court at the Port Isabel Detention Center on two separate days in July. During one of the hearings, the woman is audibly sniffling and distraught, telling the judge she feels too ill to continue. Neither lasts as long as 10 minutes.
“Well I’ll tell you what, ma’am, what I can do, I’ll put you on the back side of the calendar today, give you time to compose yourself,” Judge Powell tells her. “If you think you need to go to the medical unit, you can go to the medical unit. What do you want to do?”
“What I want is to be with my son,” the woman replies, via an interpreter.
“I understand that, ma’am. Is there anything you want to say regarding your case?” the judge asks.
“I cannot continue with this anymore. What I want is to be with my son,” she replies.
The judge then continues to read from the interview notes, asking her to respond. “I feel really ill,” was all she would say.
When the attorney asks the court to grant her a new interview “due to mental instability to due to separation of child,” the judge declines to consider it, leaving it up to the asylum office at the Department of Homeland Security.
In the other hearing, the woman described the death threats she says her brother, who is affiliated with a gang, made against her and her 7-year-old son. She also told the judge she was not fully able to understand her original interview, in part because she was so distressed about the separation from her child.
“Your honor, I want to say also that when I had the interview, some questions I did understand and others I did not. At that time I was feeling very desperate because I was separated from my son. My son remained back at the ice box, he was on the floor, and I didn’t know anything about my son at that time,” she said, via the interpreter.
She explained that she feared the gangs, her brother who was affiliated with them, and the police who worked with the gangs.
“I am begging your honor, please, do not remove me from the country,” she begged, crying. “Do it for me or for my son, I have nothing else and I am a single mother, I’m begging you.”
The judge determined she was not eligible for asylum and declined to consider her attorney’s argument that she was not mentally fit enough for the interview. He ordered her deported.
The administration has been offering separated parents the choice to be deported with or without their children.
CNN has confirmed that both women have been reunited with their children and neither woman has been deported yet. A federal judge has ordered the reunion of all separated families barring safety concerns and has temporarily paused any deportations of reunited families.
CNN gave DOJ an opportunity to comment on the audio. At this time, they have not provided any comment.
The proceedings were what’s known as a “credible fear” review. When immigrants express a fear of persecution in their home country, they are given an initial asylum interview by an asylum officer.
If the finding is “negative” – meaning the officer concludes they do not have a credible fear of persecution under the threshold – the immigrant is entitled to a review by a judge within seven days.
Listen to the two court proceedings in full. Audio has been edited to protect the identities of individuals involved:
According to data maintained by the Syracuse University TRAC Immigration Project, Judge Powell denies nearly 80% of asylum claims he hears, just slightly above the average for the Port Isabel Immigration Court where he hears cases. That is well above average nationally. The nationwide average is just over 50% of asylum claims denied.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recently made it much more difficult for immigrants fleeing gang violence to pass this threshold and qualify for asylum.