They said they didn’t know if they were going to see their kids again. They said it was the worst time of their lives, even after they both made the journeys with their children to the United States.
They said they hope it never happens again.
Two separate immigrant parents entered the United States illegally hoping to seek asylum when they arrived – but instead experienced the trauma of being separated from their children for weeks, not knowing if they’d ever see them again.
In separate interviews, Arely and her 7-year-old son Andy, as well as Jose Angel and his 11-year-old daughter Kimberly, told CNN in a law office here about the tragic experience of being separated and then reunited earlier this week. CNN has withheld their full names because they feared future legal ramifications that could impact their asylum applications.
Both Arely and Jose Angel, who are not related and from El Salvador and Honduras respectively, were held at a detention center at Port Isabel, where they experienced first-hand the now-reversed Trump administration “zero-tolerance policy” that had them criminally prosecuted for illegally entering the country.
Arely said that when she was separated from her son, she was not told by any officials whether she’d ever see him again.
“I was so worried when they took away my son, they told me I’d never see him, they told me I’d get deported,” she told CNN in Spanish. “They told me my son would stay in custody of the government.”
She described the rooms she spent time in when she was in Port Isabel – a “cuarto frio” and “la jaula,” an ice box and cage.
While her son was in care in New York City, Arely said she faced conditions such as not being provided toilet paper when she used the bathroom, and said that her son sometimes wasn’t even allowed to use the bathroom.
“It was an incredibly hard experience for me when they separated me from my son,” she told CNN in Spanish while holding back tears. “I didn’t see him until a month later and it was the hardest thing to ever happen.”
Her son added, “They wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom sometimes and when I wanted to eat, they wouldn’t give me food until they wanted to.”
Jose Angel said he had a similar experience, saying he did not witness any physical abuse, but said that guards were verbally threatening and purposely intimidating, telling parents things such as they didn’t know what happened to their children.
He said he was ushered into a cold room and then what he described as cages during his stay at a Port Isabel detention center.
“The hardest thing to experience when someone is separated from their kids because when God creates a family, I feel there isn’t anything that can separate you from your kids, except something like death,” he said in Spanish to CNN. “But it was so hard when they told us they were going to separate us from our children.”
He said when he finally saw his daughter, he begged for her to understand the separations were out of his control.
“I told her, these are things I never expected this to happen, I begged for her to forgive me” he said in Spanish. “I told her, ‘Forgive me daughter, forgive me.’”
Both parents are now staying with their families in Maryland and are hoping to be granted the asylum they believe they deserve.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request from CNN about the treatment of these families while in their detention centers.
Sophia Gregg, the attorney for these two parents who works for the Legal Aid Justice Center, told CNN she believes it’s wrong that undocumented immigrants were held like prisoners during their detainment.
“There is a system. People can seek asylum. Just because people seek asylum in this country doesn’t mean they need to be held in high security prison while they attempt to seek asylum. That is not the process,” she said, adding that they deserved the same rights as any other person in the United States.
CNN reported Tuesday there are still 914 parents who the government has determined are either ineligible or not determined for reunification, aside from the roughly 1,600 who are expected to be reunited by Thursday.
Roughly 200 parents have criminal records or declined to be reunified, more than 200 have been released, more than 460 are believed to not be in the country and another roughly 260 require further investigation, according to the government as of Tuesday.
CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.