The Slatest

Secret Audio Recording of Immigration Detention Center Reveals Inconsolable Children Calling Out for Their Parents

ProPublica published an audio recording taken inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility last week that shows just how terrified and desperate the young children separated from their families are. In the recording, which ProPublica says was of roughly 10 Central American children dealing with border patrol and consular officials, you can hear young children weeping and crying out “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again. At one point, a Border Patrol agent interjects. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he said. “What’s missing is a conductor.”

The recording was taken secretly last week inside the detention facility. Press access to detention centers has been tightly managed, and access to detainees—young and old—has been pretty much nonexistent. The fact that the recording is not part of a choreographed effort by the U.S. government to make its treatment of young children forcibly separated from their parents somehow seem more palatable makes the recording that much more powerful. It is the most truthful depiction yet of what it’s like for the separated children; it is also a mirror being held up to the face of American society.

The person who made the recording asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. The individual passed the recording along to a prominent civil rights attorney who has lived and worked on immigration issues for decades in the Rio Grande Valley. Here’s what the person who took the recording said about the circumstances that the tape comes from:

The person estimated that the children on the recording are between 4 and 10 years old. It appeared that they had been at the detention center for less than 24 hours, so their distress at having been separated from their parents was still raw. Consulate officials tried to comfort them with snacks and toys. But the children were inconsolable.

Later in the recording, a 6-year-old Salvadoran girl tells a consular official that she had memorized her aunt’s number and begs her to call her and have her come pick her up. ProPublica called the number and spoke to the aunt after she had spoken to her niece. The aunt came to the U.S. two years ago and is seeking asylum with her 9-year-old daughter to escape gang violence at home. “It was the hardest moment in my life,” the aunt said of the call. “Imagine getting a call from your 6-year-old niece. She’s crying and begging me to go get her. She says, ‘I promise I’ll behave, but please get me out of here. I’m all alone.’ ”