The voices and faces of the Central American children separated from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico are now emerging, lending a heart-rending human element to the debate over President Donald Trump's controversial "zero-tolerance policy" towards illegal immigrants.
The world heard several desperate, crying children Monday on an audio recording released by the investigative news site ProPublica, with the children pleading over and over to immigration agents to be with their "Mami" and "Papa" as the parents were questioned, detained and eventually split from their children.
LISTEN: Children separated from parents at border
Meanwhile, millions of people have viewed a photo of a 2-year-old girl from Honduras in a bright pink shirt screaming in fear last week as a U.S. border agent patted down her mother.
The children on the audio, estimated to be between 4 and 10 years old, sobbed throughout the nearly eight-minute tape that was recorded last week inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility. ProPublica said it was recorded by a person who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation, handed to a long-time civil rights attorney in Texas, who then passed it to the news organization.
As the children cried to be with their parents, one border agent joked in Spanish, "Well, we have an orchestra here, right? What we're missing is a conductor."
Pleading with agents
One determined 6-year-old Salvadoran girl, identified as Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, pleaded with agents to be with her aunt, who along with her 9-year-old daughter is already seeking to stay in the United States. The aunt told ProPublica that her sister paid a smuggler $7,000 to guide her through Guatemala and Mexico to entry into the United States, where they were apprehended.
"I want to go with my aunt," Alison told an agent on the tape. "I want my aunt to come so she can take me to her house."
She told an agent she had her aunt's phone number and recited it to a consular worker.
"Are you going to call my aunt so she can come pick me up?" the girl pleaded. "And then so my mom can come as soon as possible?"
ProPublica said it called the number recited by the girl and reached the aunt.
"It was the hardest moment in my life," the aunt said. "Imagine getting a call from your 6-year-old niece. She's crying and begging me to go get her. She says, 'I'll promise I'll behave, but please get me out of here. I'm all alone.'"
The aunt said she had been able to talk to her sister, 29-year-old Cindy Madrid, but that Alison and her mother had been separated and unable to speak to one another. The girl is being housed in a shelter, but was told that her mother might be deported without her.
“I know she’s not an American citizen,” the aunt said of her niece. “But she’s a human being. She’s a child. How can they treat her this way?”
Thousands stopped at border
More than 2,000 children stopped at the U.S.-Mexican border have been separated from their parents, amid a growing outcry from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, political figures and others for Trump to reverse the policy, which his administration implemented in April in hopes of discouraging migrants from attempting to enter the United States.
On Tuesday, Trump was scheduled to meet with majority Republican congressmen about immigration legislation the House of Representatives expects to vote on later in the week.
The U.S. leader, in a Twitter comment, again defended the border policy leading to the separation of children from their parents.
"We must always arrest people coming into our Country illegally," Trump said. "Of the 12,000 children, 10,000 are being sent by their parents on a very dangerous trip, and only 2,000 are with their parents, many of whom have tried to enter our Country illegally on numerous occasions."
Support for Trump policy
Trump has some support in highly political Washington for his controversial policy.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter called the children detained at the border "child actors," while a second, Laura Ingraham, called the U.S. detention facilities for the children "essentially summer camps."