I Escaped MS-13, Then My Child and I Were Locked Up Under Obama

After President Donald Trump discontinued his much-criticized policy of separating minors who illegally cross the border with their parents, the administration announced families would once again be detained together in U.S. custody before being released. But the centers for detaining migrant families have faced longstanding criticism, and are not new under the Trump administration. Prior administrations, including that of President Barack Obama, also housed children and parents together in detention centers.

Angelina Marquez fled death threats by MS-13 gang members in her native El Salvador in 2014, with the hope of seeking asylum in the United States. She was detained by Border Patrol agents in McAllen, Texas, during the Obama administration. Marquez—a pseudonym as she is still awaiting a final judgment on her asylum case—shared her story of being detained alongside her 6-year-old son with Newsweek. Newsweek was able to corroborate the major points of her story by reviewing court documents and speaking with her lawyer. What follows is Marquez's story in her own words, as told to reporter Jessica Kwong.

Fleeing El Salvador for the United States was a matter of life or death for my 6-year-old son and me. It all started with being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was 15 years old living with my family in the province of Morazán when my panicked father woke me up at 1 a.m. to the smell of smoke. He told me and my siblings to evacuate. By then, the flames of a nearby factory fire had already reached the roof of our home.

I was afraid of dying. Once we made it outside, my father and I heard yelling from inside the factory, and we assumed from the regular security guard. Then we saw young men from our neighborhood, who were MS-13 gang members, run out of the burning building. They saw us, too. 

My father testified as a witness in the murder of the security guard. He was killed by the gang two years later for doing so. Gang members were later charged in his death.

I thought I was safe and in my early twenties started combatting crimes against women with the Salvadoran Justice Department. That's when gang members began harassing me again. I received violent threats and survived a sexual assault.

They tried to kill me, too, and I realized it was no longer an option for me to stay in my country. My son and I had to leave.

In September 2014, at the age of 25, I set out with my son, my 16-year-old sister and a map of a route to cross the borders of Guatemala and Mexico, all in hopes of seeking asylum in the United States. 

We cleared the dangers of crossing the borders, including human and drug trafficking, and made it across the Rio Grande. After walking for hours, Border Patrol agents stopped us in McAllen, Texas. Truthfully, we didn’t try to run, because we came looking for help. We wanted to apply for asylum.

But being detained was harder than I expected. I am angry and disturbed by the way they treated a lot of women.

I told officials I was running away from gangs, but they dismissed me. “Everyone is saying that, but the gangs can’t do anything to you because they’re just a small group," one of them told me. The official claimed it was my country's problem, and that I was "just coming here to work."

They brought us to cells with temperatures so low we called them hieleras, or iceboxes. The bathrooms were in the front part of the cells, the same area where they brought us food. 

After five days, we were transported to a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. The treatment there wasn't any better, but at least we had cots. 

You had to ask an official for everything, even soap and shampoo to shower. The shampoo made our hair fall out. Menstruating women got only one sanitary pad a day, so we would take turns asking for pads even when it wasn't our time of the month, and shared with the women who needed them.

A lot of children became ill from the food they provided us. The milk was spoiled, the cereals expired.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they fed us sandwiches, which were the only real meals our kids could eat. The mothers would also save the chips and cookies we got and trade with each other based on our children's preferences. When authorities performed their checks, they would take away any snacks we had saved, even if they were sealed, to control rat infestations, so we would try to have them in our hands or hide them. 

My son was too young to truly understand what we were living through. He and his friends spent their playtime re-enacting what was happening to us, from detention to our removal proceedings. They would run around saying, "La migra"—the Border Patrol—"is coming," and they would go to the hieleras. The boys pretended some of them were officials, that others had to go to court, some acted like judges and lawyers. They even set bail amounts.

My son would ask me, "When are we going to get out?" and "Why are we locked up?" It was very difficult for me to answer him because I had always tried to shield him from what I suffered through in El Salvador. Sometimes I would tell him, "We'll get out and see your aunt," because he would ask where my sister was taken. But deep down, I didn't know if we would ever be let out, if we would ever see her again or if they would deport us, which I feared most. 

After two months in detention, my son and I were released when family members paid our bail. But my son, who is 10 years old now, has not stopped crying. He has overheard conversations I’ve had with my lawyer and knows I’m awaiting my last court date for asylum and doesn’t want me to go before a judge.

“Mom, don’t go to court because if you go, they’re going to deport you, and I’ll be left here," he says, because he's seen families being separated on TV.

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