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For over eight years, I’ve worked to serve unaccompanied kids and families at LIRS. And in that time, the road that our families have had to walk has never been easy. But it’s been a lot harder over the past few years – just look at the family separation crisis.
We saw it coming in January of 2018, hearing the stories and seeing more and more instances of separation. That’s when it started to get frightening… because up to that point, family separation had only occurred in very specific circumstances and was considered a last resort – even by immigration officials.
By April, we learned that family separation was being implemented on a large scale, a consequence of the zero-tolerance directive from the Attorney General. The fact that they were using children as political leverage was absolutely horrifying. And as a service provider and mother of two boys, I knew I had to do something.
With the expertise and infrastructure in place, LIRS made that possible – for all of us. The donors who gave, the foundations and the corporations that stepped up, the volunteers who came to us looking to help…It was inspiring the way it came together.
And our network of partners were just amazing. I was calling partners on the weekends saying “listen, we have an opportunity to help children to be reunited with their parents. We don’t know where the money is going to come from, we don’t know exactly what the work is going to look like, but we have to do something.” And the answer was always emphatically, “Yes. I’m in.”
I’ll never forget the case of Jose Jr.
Junior was three years old – like my own son. He had been separated from his dad and sent to transitional foster care until we could reunite him. I had the rare opportunity to be there on the day he was reunited with his dad. And I remember Junior literally running to him, throwing his arms around his neck, and holding him so tightly. When I left them, Junior was still holding on to his dad’s neck. That child was not going to let go of his dad. Not for all the money in the world.
When the time came to take Junior and his dad to rest at the hotel, I got a phone call. They didn’t have a car seat to transport Junior safely. But I did, because of my son, so I drove back to meet them. I just set up the car seat and I got little Junior. And I’m putting him in the car seat, thinking I’m going to need to adjust the straps for the seat and… he fit perfectly. This child is literally the exact same size as my son.
It took everything in me not to get really emotional.
Because Junior could have been my son. This could have been me. And I think people lose sight of that. We are very lucky to be born in a country where we have inalienable rights that can never be taken away from us.
Junior and his dad didn’t have that. Through the fate of birth, they were born into impossible circumstances, had to leave those impossible circumstances and make that journey north because they had no alternative. And then they arrived somewhere where they’re supposed to be taken care of and treated with respect… and then the officials are going to take your baby from you?
And to see Jose Sr.’s ankle swollen after only a few hours, to see him wince in pain because his ankle bracelet was so tight, and then smile at his son . . . I mean, they can’t even release you from detention in a humane way?
It feels like the system’s just looking for ways to punish people who need protection.
This country is supposed to be a shining light of safety and protection for all people. We’re supposed to be a country that upholds the rule of law with compassion, with care. It’s by chance that I was born into this country — that there’s a constitution that protects me, and we lose sight of that.
But what comes along with that privilege is that we’re expected to take care of those who have less than us. That’s supposed to be what we do. We’re supposed to take care of people. And sometimes it feels like we’ve lost our way.
But I still have hope. It wakes me up in the early hours of the morning. I remember that some day, I will reflect on this difficult time for our country with my sons. And when that day dawns and America’s light shines once again as a beacon of compassion and protection, I will remember Junior.
I will always remember Junior.