The stories we most need to tell are often the hardest to tell. I’ve struggled mightily to figure out how and when to tell this story. I’m sure there will be more to tell, later, but for now I tell it for a simple reason: Patricia and those like her want their story to be heard. I translated this story into Spanish for Patricia and she corrected a few minor details. Everything told here is with her full consent and permission.
I met Patricia in October of last year, while she and her son, Mario, were detained in Karnes Family Detention Jail. Immediately, I was struck by her smile and her positive energy and bright eyes. Though she was optimistic and happy, it was impossible not to feel the deep sadness within her. We didn’t talk about the details, then, but I knew they must have been horrific. She fled El Salvador with her eight year old son, Mario, because his life was in danger. He would be forced into a gang if she didn’t get him out, and quickly. Mario is eight years old. He has a sister they had to leave behind.
I went to visit Karnes several times, and I brought someone new with me each time, first my colleague, Kelly, then a parishioner from my congregation, Melissa, next my husband, Elias, and finally my two and three year old boys, Clayton and Samuel. This is the part in the story where I want to be crystal clear that I was taking my toddlers to a to a jail where other children their own age and younger are detained as prisoners.
In the visitation area there is a play kitchen and mismatched toys. The three boys played together. I wrote this in my journal that day:
We sat on the carpeted space with the toys and the little refrigerator… we didn’t talk too much this time about Patricia or El Salvador or what she left behind or what she’s going toward, we just played with the kids. We laughed when Clayton identified a piece of pretend meat as a watermelon. We scolded Samuel for taking a toy away from Mario. We praised Mario for saying ‘That’s ok.’ We pretended we were normal friends, not in a prison.
But we were in a prison, a fact that was painfully and viscerally evident when Clayton asked “Why is the door locked?” I said nothing.
The night after my husband and I brought our boys to Karnes Family Detention Center I had a dream that we were all back there again and when it was time to leave the guards wouldn’t let me take my children out. They said when children come in here, we don’t let them out, ever. You can’t prove that they are yours. When I woke up the next morning, I told Elias that I was never bringing the children to visit Mario and Patricia again.
I changed my mind and we continued the visits. The nightmares continued, though.
Mercifully, thanks to the dedication of RAICES lawyers and the bond fund, Patricia and Mario were released to come live with us on January 1 of this year, after five months in jail.
I have vivid memories of dinner on New Year’s Day. Some El Salvadoran friends told us that El Pollo Loco was a good choice, and so we got roast chicken with all of the sides. I remember Mario gobbling up every morsel and seconds. We found something for Mario to sleep in. They came to us with the clothes on their backs and some legal papers.
The first few nights with all of us under the same roof were intense and emotional. Elias was out of town for a week and so Patricia and I had a lot of time to talk. She told me about the violence she fled. She told me about the journey. She told me about the incredible sense of isolation and hopelessness she felt in detention and how hope filled and happy she was when we would visit. She talked about El Salvador and why she had to leave. I journaled about the terrible details of other stories she has shared but I cannot bear to read them.
There has been a visible transformation in eight year old Mario since he has been out of detention. When he was inside, his mother said he was getting sadder and sadder every day, but here, the opposite has been true. Just eight days after getting out of detention I wrote this in my journal “Today at dinner Patricia said “his face is filling out a little bit. he doesn’t have as much of that sad look in his eyes anymore. I wanted to ask her, ‘will there come a time when he doesn’t have it at all?’”
Since January we’ve felt an outpouring of love and support from our community. The church I pastor has showered us with gift cards to the grocery store, clothes, school supplies for Mario, money for vaccines and warm smiles. The Interfaith Welcome Coalition brought hot meals, listening ears, legal help, and a guest house for them to stay in when my parents were in town for an extended visit. We’ve formed a strong bond, and so have our children who play together and fight together like brothers.
Yet, these months have not been without challenge and struggle. It’s not easy to squish two families who barely know each other together in a modest home. We’ve all had moments of stress, misunderstanding and sadness.
At times I felt buried under an avalanche of pain, which has led to tremendous guilt. Why is it, I wondered that I am feeling so much stress when I should be rejoicing that things are getting better for Patricia and Mario? Part of the answer, I think, lies in the fact that seeing Patricia and Mario every day is a constant reminder that there are hundreds of children and their mothers locked inside for-profit (yes, for profit) immigration detention centers like place we first met in Karnes City.
In a few weeks, Patricia and Mario are moving on. They’ve gotten some things situated, they’ve made some choices, and now they’re headed for beautiful Seattle. You can help them get there. My family has never been to the pacific northwest, but now we have the perfect reason to visit.
If you would like to contribute to Patricia and Mario’s relocation fund, there is a Go Fund Me site set up. Donations of any size are welcome.
Other Ways to Help
To Donate to the Refugee Backpack Program, go HERE.
If you are a faith leader, sign this letter.
To learn more about Family Detention, here are some good places to start:
What I Saw at the Detention Center
Locking up Family Values, Again