the cut on tuesdays

One Immigrant Mother’s Long Journey Back to her Kids

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The Cut on Tuesdays

A weekly podcast from the Cut and Gimlet Media, with host Molly Fischer.

Last year, producer Sarah McVeigh went to the border to see what life was like for women trying to get into the United States. While she was there, she met a woman named Karla — and she’s been thinking about Karla and her family ever since.

Sarah: So, on the 29th December, I got a text from Karla saying, Hi Sarah I am ready to cross over to the United States.

Molly: And then what?

Sarah: So I wrote straight back asking for more information … but then for five months I heard absolutely nothing.

Molly: Did you know what was going on at that point?

Sarah: No, and I could see she hadn’t even seen my message responding to her. Then two weeks ago, out of the blue, I finally heard from her.

When Sarah had first met Karla, she was trying to get back to her children in South Carolina. And she had crossed over to the U.S., after she sent that text. But the months that followed were a long ordeal. After entering the U.S. legally, as an asylum-seeker, she was first taken to las hieleras — “the iceboxes” — frigid holding cells used by Customs and Border Protection, where she stayed almost two weeks. From there, she was taken to another detention facility, in Arizona.

After 17 days in Arizona, when guards called her name, Karla thought she was being released. Instead, she was handcuffed.

Karla: We have a handcuffs on both hands. And they put one here on the tummy and they put it like this.

Sarah: So you’re describing that they put you in handcuffs and then they put a chain around your stomach and tied your hands to your stomach so you couldn’t move?

Karla: Yeah, they, they tied our hands with my tummy and they put on foot handcuffs, too. We looked like criminals. Really, really criminal. Like El Chapo.

Shackled, Karla and her fellow detainees were put on a plane.

Karla: We fly to Colorado.

Sarah: And what did they tell you about where you were going?

Karla: They say, we’re going to Colorado — and just, just that.

Sarah: Did you say why?

Karla: No, I don’t ask. When you ask something they don’t answer. They say, we don’t have to say nothing.

Sarah: Tell me what that plane ride was like.

Karla: You know, they tell everything about — when you fly the airplane, uh, how do you say —

Sarah: Crashes?

Karla: Crashes. What do we do? Nothing. We have handcuffs.

Sarah: Wait, so they told you like in a normal safety demonstration, you know, if there’s a problem, get your life vest out.?

Karla: Yeah. Like a normal airplane. And they say, You can save your life like this. And we say, how? We don’t have our hands free.

They were served food on the plane, but because they couldn’t use their hands, they had to lean forward and try and eat just using their mouths.

Karla: We eat like we are dogs, or pigs.

All evidence was just pointing to things getting worse and worse and worse. And yet, Sarah said, every single time that there was a change, Karla maintained her optimism.

Karla: When I go to Colorado, I think, yeah, I’ll go free. Why did they take us to another detention? We are not criminals; I am not a criminal. And I said, how long do I have to wait to see my kids?

Remember, Karla hadn’t been charged with a crime — she wasn’t in jail. She was in detention because she was seeking asylum in the United States. While she was in Colorado, she got a job at the detention center cleaning and serving food. She was paid $1 per day.

Sarah: Tell me about the day they told you you could leave.

Karla: Oh my God, oh my God — I remember that. I was sleeping and somebody touched me and I woke up. I saw all the women around me and they told me, Karla, you have to leave. I said, Really? Oh my God, I can’t believe that. Oh my God. Thank you. Thank you, God. Finally I go see my kids.

To hear Karla’s reunion with her kids — and everything that happened next — click above, and subscribe wherever you listen.

One Immigrant Mother’s Long Journey Back to her Kids