Alexander is just 11, but he already demonstrates the resilience of someone older who has suffered through difficult situations without being broken.
He was separated from his mother, Otilia, for 45 days and sent alone to a detention center thousands of miles away after he and his mother crossed into the U.S.
This is what President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy does: It separates families.
When I met Alexander, he was wearing new clothes: a pair of jeans, a black shirt and red sneakers. Gel held his hair firmly in place. Eyes wide open, he carefully observed everything going on around him, saying almost nothing at first.
Who can blame him for the lack of trust? After all, it was not long ago that strangers forcibly separated him from his mother. Perhaps that is why he won’t leave her side now — when I spoke with them recently, they were walking together as if tied to each other with an invisible rope.
Otilia told me that they left Guatemala because of crime and a lack of work opportunities. She told me she left her other children behind, ages 10, 6 and 4, bringing only her firstborn to try and have a better life in the U.S. The rest of her children would have to wait.
They entered the country without permission in Arizona and were soon caught by authorities on the border. The officers put them in a “very hot” van then took them to “the Freezer,” a detention center known for its frigid temperatures. They spent three days there together.
Then an agent asked Otilia a terrible question: “Are you aware that you’re going to be separated from your son?” No, she wasn’t.
From behind a window, Alexander saw his mother be taken away. “Her hands, feet and waist were in chains,” the boy told me, the memory still painful. Soon he was put on an airplane with other boys and taken to a detention center for children in Chicago.
There, things only got worse. “I was hit,” he said. A 14-year-old boy knocked him down and Alexander hit his head on the metal frame of a bed. When he touched the back of his neck, it was wet with blood. He was sent to another room, but the fear remained. Officials who were supposed to protect him never did. The social worker assigned to look after him told him that she didn’t want to see him, Alexander said.
Other boys didn’t fare any better. “I’ve seen kids suffer,” Alexander explained, recalling how he’d seen a 6-year-old fall apart after he was separated from his father. “The next day the boy just couldn’t get up. He had no strength at all. I saw a lot of boys cry,” he told me.
While Alexander was in Chicago, he was able to speak to his mother just twice. She was facing a legal proceeding before an immigration judge, and was told she had to pay $20,000 bail — a prohibitive amount for someone fleeing Guatemala — to be released, she said. Even so, Otilia was not forced to leave the United country without her son. Others in similar circumstances have been deported without their children.
In recent months over 2,300 children have been separated from their parents after crossing illegally into the United States, according to official figures. We will never know the exact number. We do know the government did not fully comply with a judge’s order to reunite all those children with their parents by July 26. Some cases have been complicated by the fact that children can remain in detention centers here after their parents have been deported to their home countries, mostly in Central America, with no resources or information as to how to be reunited.
I asked Alexander if coming to the U.S. was worth it. I was expecting a decisive no from him. To my surprise, he said: “Yes.” Once again, he sounded mature beyond his years as he explained all the effort it took him and his mother to get to this country.
I asked Otilia: What would you like to tell Trump? “To please understand us,” she said. “And that we came here looking for a better future, not to do anything bad, but to offer our children an education.”
In recent months the Trump administration has remained inflexible toward families like Alexander’s. Trump expects this policy to discourage others from coming across our borders.
While he’s not sorry that they came, this is definitely not the country Alexander imagined when he left Guatemala with his mother. “What did you expect of the United States?” I asked him.
His answer was brutal: “I expected it to be a better place.”