Last month, CNN sent writing paper along with a stamped and addressed return envelope to immigrant mothers who had been separated from their children and who were detained at a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Eloy, Arizona.
In a letter, we asked the women if they would like to share their stories, and, if so, to describe the moment they were separated from their children. Ten days later, 14 handwritten notes arrived at CNN’s offices in New York.
The letters, written by women who have come from countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, recall the moments of separation in harrowing detail, and allege mistreatment at the facilities in which they have been confined, first at a detention center in Yuma, Arizona, and later at Eloy.
At that time, in late June, many mothers had not been able to speak to their children since they were separated. Their desperate notes, scrawled in pencil, read like messages in bottles.
At least one of the women who wrote to us has since been reunited with her children. Two others have been released and allowed to see their kids. But several of the women remain in detention.
Asked for comment, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said that the agency “provides safe and sanitary conditions in its facilities.” In another statement, ICE said that it is “committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody,” but would not comment on specific accusations unless we revealed the full names of the letter writers.
CNN did not share, and has not published, the women's full names due to fear of any retaliation they may suffer.
Here are some of their stories — edited for length — in their own words.
"The last words of my son were 'Mommy, if they come for me, I'll hold your feet tight and I will not let you go'"
I am the mother of two little children whose names are Victor, who was born on 24 June 2007, and Leidy, who was born on July 29, 2008. We entered this country on May 23, looking for refuge. I, as their mother, wanted to protect them. I was looking for a better future for them. When I came here everything changed.
We endured hunger, cold and fear that at any time they were going to separate us from each other. And that day finally came, they took them away from me with no consideration. My boy and my girl threw themselves into my arms and cried. I was heartbroken. I could not stand the pain. The last words of my son were “Mommy, if they come for me, I'll hold your feet tight and I will not let you go even if they pull me.” My pain was even greater when I heard that. My girl continued to cry, and they took them away without mercy for me or my children. It has been more than a month since I saw them.
Please help me, I am desperate, I want to be with them. They got their justice, we already paid for what we’ve done. Today I ask only one thing and it is to see the face of my two little angels. I want to hug them. I want to kiss them again.
"My heart was broken when I saw them taking him and I was not able to do anything"
I came to this country to save my life and to give my son Jefry, 13 years old, a better future. I came with many illusions BUT when I arrived, what I found was humiliation and ridicule on the part of the detention officers. They took me to the detention center – Yuma, Arizona - with my son. We spent six days there. Those were the bitterest days that me and my son have ever lived.
I got sick there, I passed out because I was very weak, and I had not eaten well for days -- the way in the desert was very long. When I passed out, the officers took me out of the cold room they had me in with my son. I fainted again, and they threw me to the floor. My son cried when he saw me like that and asked them to take me to a doctor. They just laughed at us and made fun of my situation. They told me that this happened to me because I came to this country, that they did not want us here.
When I fainted, my son picked me up off the ground and cried bitterly. That same night they took him away from me. They did not give me the opportunity to say goodbye to him. It was so painful and cruel, and I still suffer a lot because of the separation of my son. My heart was broken when I saw them taking him and I was not able to do anything.
Then, they took me out of there and put me in another detention center. Now I am here devastated because I have not seen my son in over a month. My pain is much greater now. I need to be with him. I'm waiting for my bail, but the fines are too high, and I do not know what's going to happen. I pray to God every day to touch their hearts (of those who separated us). With tears in my eyes I beg for help to the person that reads these words, which I write with great pain in my soul. May God touch your heart to help me get out of here and to be with my son again. I need it. I want to fight for him, I want to see him grow, and give him an education. I want to see him become a good man.
"My child kissed me and said, ‘We will be together soon, Mommy’""
My son's name is Bryan. He is 7 years old and I am 24 years old. I'm Salvadoran.
This has been a nightmare for me. They took my son in Yuma, Arizona, without giving me an explanation. I was taken here on May 24. They treated us horribly, like animals. My child was shaking because it was very cold. In addition to that, they only gave us instant soup and a biscuit. If my child was asleep, I had to pick him up off from the ground and wake him up, or they would not give him anything, even a simple juice and soup. They humiliated us.
My heart is broken because I am away from my son. I came to this country to seek protection for me and my son, because of the situation that is taking place in El Salvador is bad, we have had many threats against our life. But I never thought that in this country they would give us this suffering, and that they would destroy our hearts.
I remember that my child kissed me and said, “we will be together soon, Mommy.” Those were the last words that came out of his mouth. He is in a shelter now. What I want the most is to get him back and tell him how much I love him, and that he is my life and gives me the strength to stay here, and that God may always keep him safe. I will fight for him, for protection in this country, and that God touches the heart of this President so that he no longer separates families. It is the hardest thing that can ever happen to someone.
"My girl ... is too young to understand what is happening"
I came to this country with my 5-year-old girl, her name is Adish.
I entered the Yuma, Arizona center on May 25. They fed us with raw instant soups which were prepared with water from the bathroom.
On May 27 I had to leave my daughter in the “cooler,” by herself. They snatched my girl. It had been almost 30 days without knowing anything about my girl. I sent requests to get information about her, but they did not respond until June 26, when I finally had the chance to talk to her.
My girl was sad, crying and almost did not want to talk to me. She was very distant, she is too young to understand what is happening. She was asking to be with me, and she told me that she wants to be with me. I came to this country to give her a better future. I left my country to avoid the dangers in my country. But I did not think they would cause my girl the trauma she is facing right now. My daughter is very young, and she does not have any number she can call. She is not in contact with anybody. That’s why I worry, because she is with strangers and they can give her everything, but what she needs, is me.
"They forcibly removed her from my arms and took her away"
I'm from Guatemala. I came to this country on May 23 with my daughter Sayma. I came hoping for a better future for my baby, not knowing what was waiting for us. The day we entered the country, we were first sent to the Yuma, Arizona center. From that moment, the officers began to treat us badly. My daughter was there with me for just two days, then she was taken away, which was on May 25. Since that day I have been suffering because the separation from my little one. But not only me, she is suffering as well. She said, crying bitterly to me, that she did not want to leave me. Regardless, they had no compassion, not even after seeing my baby’s tears and mine. These people do not have heart. That day, when my baby was taken from me, they did not ask me if I agreed with my baby being sent to a shelter. I told them that I was not going to let them to take my baby away. But they told me that I could not do anything because I had entered the country without documents. Then they forcibly removed her from my arms and took her away.
My girl is 10 years old.
"They did not give me permission to say goodbye"
Hello, I came to this country with my two children, the oldest is 8 years old and his name is Juan, the little one is 7 years old, his name is Mario.
I came to this country because I was suffering from abuse and I did not have anywhere to live. I am fighting alone with my two little ones, and I wanted to give them a better future. But I never imagined that I would be separated from them. The sorrow they have caused in our hearts has been more than painful.
I have been separated from my children in the cruelest way. When they arrested us, they took us to a detention center and took away my two children. They did not give me permission to say goodbye. They separated us without explanation. When they took them away from me, my children were in tears. They did not want to leave me.
I talked to my oldest son a couple days ago. He told me "Mommy, me and my little brother were put in a place that was really cold and they would not give us blankets. We only eat raw soups. Mommy, me and my little brother have to hug each other to stay warm because we were dying of cold."
I beg you with tears in my eyes, please help us. I want to see my children. They were taken to a shelter in Miami, Florida.
The last day I saw them, they held me very tight, and they did not want to be separated from me. I remember how hard they cried, and I also cry a lot for it.
Being separated from your children is the worst thing you can do to a mother.