A single mother from Guatemala who was detained in Nevada and was separated from her 5-year-old daughter for four months because of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has been reunited with her child, although both are now being held in a family detention center in Texas, and they don’t know when they will leave.
Olivia Aguilar Bamaca and her daughter were reunited Sept. 13, weeks after most other families had already been reunified, and are passing their time in confinement while their immigration cases wind through the system. She spoke to The Nevada Independent on Monday by phone from the detention center about the moment she first saw her daughter again.
“My brother brought her by the hand, and I hugged her. And my daughter started crying and told me, ‘Mommy, tell this official to please don’t separate us,’” Aguilar Bamaca said in Spanish. “Even now she keeps asking me every time she sees an official here, she hugs me and starts to cry because she’s afraid that they’re going to separate us.”
Brian Ramsey, Aguilar Bamaca’s lawyer, has requested a new “credible fear interview” for his client because she didn’t “pass” it the first time, possibly because the interview itself was cut short. If she gets and passes the second interview, that could allow her to stay longer in the country with her daughter and continue pursuing a case for asylum.
He thinks the fact that she didn’t pass may have contributed to bureaucratic confusion that kept her apart from the girl longer than many other separated parents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement nearly deported her in August without the girl, even though she hadn’t waived her right to be reunified, before Ramsey intervened with a lawsuit.
“From a rational point of view, I’ve always been a little disturbed that I had to go to this extent to get ICE to follow the law,” said Ramsey, who argued that she should have been treated the same way other immigrant parents were as a result of a judge’s injunction on family separation in June. “They certainly knew of the injunction, and I notified them of the injunction, and they still took it upon themselves to try to deport her. So, I guess somebody had to use their voice and my voice is that of a lawyer, so I did what I did.”
ICE hasn’t commented on the case.
Aguilar Bamaca and her daughter were reunified the afternoon of Sept. 13 when the girl and her uncle arrived in Texas on a flight from Florida that was paid for by the government. The brother, who lives in Florida, had taken care of the girl after she was separated from her mother and spent several weeks in a shelter.
“He was able to see his sister for six minutes,” Ramsey said. “And later they took him back to the airport and sent him on a return flight to Florida.”
Aguilar Bamaca said that since she saw them she felt happy and grateful to God for the opportunity to see her daughter again, who she saw was in good physical condition but not good emotionally. She said she’s noticed lingering effects of the separation, including in the girl’s first words to her at their reunion.
“Mommy, I missed you a lot, and I cried for you when I was alone in the place they took me,” Aguilar Bamaca recalled the girl saying.
Aguilar Bamaca had been in detention for a month before she learned where her daughter had been sent. While other families detained through zero tolerance were transferred to Texas to be reunited with their children in July, as directed by a court, she remained in an ICE facility in Pahrump and came close to being deported alone.
Life in the detention center
Aguilar Bamaca said that initially she was told that her daughter would sleep in another room, but she requested that they remain together. Both sleep in the same bed, in a room that they share with six other mothers and their children. Some of them have spent two months there waiting for updates on their cases, she said.
Aguilar Bamaca said that her days are divided between meals and routine doctor visits to check on the health of her daughter, as well as classes and games to keep the children entertained.
“But I’m with her to hug her and tell her that everything’s going to be OK. I try to distract her, I tell her ‘let’s go play,’ so that she doesn’t think much about what happened to her,” Aguilar Bamaca said.
The mother said that she and her daughter — who likes to paint — are treated well in the center. Breakfast is served at 5:30 a.m., lunch at 11 and dinner at 4; some meals are cereal, others include rice and beans.
Aguilar Bamaca estimates that in her unit, there are 90 women with children who range in age from 1 to 15. There are lawyers who come to the center, but because there are numerous families to help, detainees have to wait until they get an appointment.
“At this point, they’ve told me absolutely nothing. They tell me to keep waiting,” Aguilar Bamaca said about her case status. “An official from ICE told me, ‘Here there are many women and you should have patience. I don’t know how long you are going to be here. One week, two weeks, I don’t know.’”
The mother said that, although they’re happy to be together now in the family detention center, they’re not receiving counseling and she’s concerned to see that her daughter often cries and asks her when they’re going to leave the center.
Aguilar Bamaca has said that violence and a lack of economic opportunity in Guatemala prompted her to venture to the U.S., as well as personal strife. She said that when her daughter was a month old, she realized that her baby’s father already had another family. The girlfriend of the baby’s father found out about Aguilar Bamaca and the child, and abused and threatened her.
“They’ve threatened that they want to kill my daughter and me,” she said. “They’ve even threatened to kidnap my daughter if I went to the police to complain.”
She said that she maintains hope that she and her daughter can stay in the U.S. They plan to keep fighting their case because they don’t want to return to the circumstances that pushed them to seek refuge in the U.S. in the first place.
“I’m sad. Now I have my daughter with me, but I also want freedom … it’s something very difficult to be locked up,” she said.