Meeting the Eyes of Separated Children

From Young Center Executive Director Maria Woltjen: If you do nothing else today, I hope you’ll read this story by my colleague, my treasured friend, Jajah Wu. It will make you cry. It will make you angry. It will make you thankful there are people like Jajah fighting for immigrant kids. I met Jajah in 2006, when she was a law student at the University of Chicago, when the Young Center was just getting off the ground. From the very beginning, she brought her joy, her wisdom, her passion for what’s right and wrong to fight for each and every child. After law school, Jajah went off to practice at a firm, but we wooed her back and she took her place as a Young Center attorney. Scores of students and volunteer advocates who are now spread out across the country were taught by Jajah. They learned from Jajah to be fierce advocates. They learned from Jajah how to listen to children, how to learn their stories. This is Jajah’s story.

Written by Xiaorong Jajah Wu:

It is difficult to know how to feel about the human rights violations committed by this administration against immigrants. And by that, I mean, as an advocate who is, if not seasoned, then weathered, say, I know I can do my best work if I float above the knowledge of what is happening to families and children. “There,” I say, pointing down into the water, “the government has forcibly separated 911 children from their parents since the end of the Zero-Tolerance policy. Look at it.”

911 is a terrible number. It is also academic—that is the nature of numbers. They allow us to float above the water. But say you’d like to get closer to the truth, as I suspect you do, if you are still with me.

Well, imagine reading 911 individual stories of families—broken families, happy families, struggling families. There are birthdays, funerals, accidents, small joys and losses, maybe there are threats from gang members, maybe there aren’t. You, reader, fall in love with the way the baby girl eats beans, smearing them over her face like a culinary Picasso. You, reader, twinge sympathetically as the father eases himself gently down into a chair because of his bad back. You come to the final chapter. It is summer. Watermelon and parades are being shunted like confetti across America. It is summer, and by ways both terrible and mundane, the family finds themselves taken in at the US border: this baby still learning to eat beans, this father who has earned himself a bad back in the fields. And in the borderland, strange men and women take the family apart, as efficiently as a farmer separates livestock. The helpless fury of the father mixes with the terror of the child, rising up, up, up one last time into the frigid air of the hieleras* before they can hear each other no more. And the silence afterwards—imagine the silence, where even though they beg “what next? what now?” no one answers.

Read this story 911 times. The characters and circumstances change, the ending does not.

Maybe this gets us closer to the truth, the true true, the sound of 911 families drowning. Or maybe not.

Here’s another way.

People don’t believe it when I say I remember my life as a 1 year old. But I do. When I was 1 and some months, my father got the golden ticket: a visa to the United States, for one. He was a PhD student—smart and hardworking and desperate. We were upper class, no doubt. We lived in a lovely, big old house. No gangs were chasing us through Shanghai, China. Even with all this privilege, we lived on rations and my father had no prospects. So he left, planning to stake out a life deemed important enough that the Immigration and Naturalization Service might eventually decide it was worth granting my mother and me visas too. When he called home from America, I refused to speak to him.

When I was two, my mother got her visa. I remember the day she left. I remember my aunt luring me out of the house with a trip to the park. She didn’t have to do that; I knew my mother was leaving. I knew she would be gone by the time I came back. I think—although through the haze of the years, I can’t be sure—I preferred not to say goodbye. Years later, long after we were back together, one big, sometimes-happy immigrant family, I would wake up from nightmares, tears running down my face as scared and mindless as rabbits, from some dream scenario where my mother left me, over and over again.

I understand this is self-indulgent, but I am trying to tell you that I am not completely healed from this separation that happened more than three decades ago, this separation that our family agreed to and planned on, as hard as it was.

So, if I push myself a little further, and further still down into the water, to meet the eyes of some little girl who is two, or twelve, or fifteen, recently ripped from mother, in a detention center with strangers who cannot tell her what will happen, to once a week for a few minutes (if she’s lucky) talk to her mother over the muffled phone lines, if I watch her swirled and buffeted by these political tides and machinations, her heart slowly and irrevocably breaking in ways she will continue to discover for years to come (if she’s lucky to have years), I feel dizzy. I feel sick. And I can’t meet the eyes of the other 910 children.

So let us raise ourselves out of the imaginary water and leave them there. We crawl back into our boats, and go back to the work, pushing one frail rope out to a single family, against the current.

*Las hieleras, or iceboxes, are short-term DHS facilities at the border, so named because of the freezing temperatures maintained by the oppressive air conditioning. Some report seeing their own breath condense. This is supposedly to keep those detained "healthy". Most immigrants are made to wear shorts and t-shirts in the hieleras. Mylar blankets are prized possessions there.

Maddie Witters