Walking along the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, an undocumented immigrant from Brazil named Jocelyn was uncomfortable even glancing at the border patrol vehicle on the other side of the security fence. She was scared.
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"It's a terrible thing, the experience we've had," Jocelyn, who asked that her last name not be used, said in Spanish.
That experience was seeing her son, James, taken from her in August when she was apprehended for crossing illegally into the United States, hoping to seek asylum.
"He didn't know where he was going, so he was looking at me like, 'Mom, help me, because I don't know where they're taking me,' Jocelyn, 31, said Wednesday, beginning to sob uncontrollably. "I didn't know what was going to happen to us. I spent the night crying because I wanted James to be protected, and I didn't know what was going to happen to him."
The native Portuguese speaker, who learned Spanish while in U.S. federal custody for about a month and then a shelter, hasn't seen her son in more than eight months. He's more than 1,000 miles away in Chicago, inside a center that's under the watch of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Jocelyn speaks to him only once a week, she said, and recently has grown even more worried because his case officer informed her they are medicating him to help his nerves. She's worried about the trauma this is causing the 14-year-old.
So are the people trying to help her.
“They say these children will never feel safe in their lives. They will always feel vulnerable.”
Jocelyn, on behalf of herself and hundreds of others, is suing several federal agencies, claiming it's illegal for the government to keep families separated for no legitimate reason after a fit parent has served a sentence -- three days to two weeks -- for the misdemeanor of illegally crossing the border. Jocelyn's case, he said, is only the tip of the iceberg.
"Literally 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds screaming, 'Please don't take me away from my mommy,' and being ripped away," Gelernt said.
Gelernt said the separating of undocumented families has hit a fever pitch under the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance policy."
In a motion filed last month to dismiss the case, which is pending, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) argued that such cases “serve the legitimate purpose of allowing the government to carry out its immigration and criminal enforcement role” and that “plaintiffs have not provided any basis to conclude that there is a due process right to family unity that prohibited the separation."
From the government’s point of view, "If you don't want your child separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally. It's not our fault someone does that," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said earlier this month.
Meanwhile, ABC News cameras were also rolling Wednesday as a group of immigrant families was released from ICE custody into a halfway house in El Paso, Texas. Many still looked shaken by fear, both children and parents. They were greeted by Ruben Garcia, who has been running the shelter for more than 40 years.
"For the past 12 to 18 months, we're seeing something we have never seen before," Garcia said. "As I like to say, it's like enforcement on steroids with the things that are being done here on the border."
He has taken in families who have been separated and petitioned the government to let them know he has room for the children who have been taken from parents, Garcia said. But, he added, the process drags along and some parents spend months without seeing their children.
"It's inhumane, immoral," Garcia said. "We need to ask ourselves, ‘Who do we want to be?’ Things that we, as a countryman take pride in; I can’t see how we as a country could take pride in separating children."
Though she's in a court battle to be reunited with her son, Jocelyn still hopes to be granted asylum after fleeing her native Brazil because of domestic violence.
Asked whether she has second thoughts about crossing that border now that she hasn't seen her son for so long, she said, "This is a hard question to answer. If you're on that side, it's horrible. And if you're on this side, it's also horrible.”
She also had this message for President Donald Trump:
"Please help us. We are here looking for protection."