That was the first thing Albertina Contreras says she heard after she set foot on American soil, shortly before she was shackled and her daughter taken away to a detention facility for kids. They were headed for Murfreesboro, but only Contreras made it.
Now, attorneys are trying to reunite the family, in one of the first family separation cases identified in Tennessee.
Contreras tried to go to the port of entry and ask for asylum, but was told by others who’d tried that they weren’t taking any more refugees. Still, she tried her luck nearby, and was swiftly arrested by a group of border patrol agents, along with her 11-year-old daughter Yakelyn, as they attempted to cross into the U.S. from Mexico.
“They said ‘you don’t understand. You’re animals’ Don’t you watch the news? We don’t want to see more immigrants here,” says Conteras. “The kids cried and screamed, but they didn’t care.”
It was ironic, says Contreras, because that’s the kind of name her ex-boyfriend would call her as he regularly beat her in front of her three children. She called the police several times — but they did nothing.
It was why she decided to begin the three-week trek from Guatemala to the U.S. early in May. She left her two young boys with her sister. A painful decision, she says, but the journey was too dangerous.
Her daughter though, couldn’t wait.
“If I left her I took the risk that she’d be a victim like I was in the past, of violence, of rape, or even worse things,” says Contreras.
According to the UN, Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world. Sexual violence and teen pregnancy are also common, specially for women living in rural areas like hers, says Contreras, who lost her parents before she was a teenager.
She became a mom at 15. She was on her own with Yakelyn soon after.
That night at the border was the last time Contreras saw her daughter. They were both detained and housed in separate facilities in Texas.
For weeks Contreras didn’t know where Yakelyn was. She says she spent the first eight days of her arrest in solitary confinement, after a counselor asked her if she’d ever in her life considered suicide. “Yes,” said Contreras, “when she was being abused in Guatemala.” They put a red bracelet on her arm. No one expained what that meant.
Then, they locked her up in solitary confinement. She says she was alone in a tiny room for 23 hours a day — releasing her only to shower, without soap or shampoo, and to watch a little TV in the time left over.
After President Trump signed an executive order last month, Contreras was fitted with an ankle bracelet and released. She had been detained one month and one day.
She arrived in Middle Tennessee where she had some relatives. She came alone.
Navigating The System
The non-profit where Yakelyn is being held, Southwest Key’s Casa Antigua, refused to release her unless everyone Contreras was staying with submitted fingerprints to the Department of Health and Human Services. They cited a recent directive by the Trump administration requiring this process.
The law office representing Contreras says the document they have to sign waives all rights to appeal and authorizes their information to be shared with other government agencies.
Contreras’s family was terrified. But her lawyer, Marlee Deck, says that process should only apply to unaccompanied minors, not children separated from parents.
“They would have to go through this lengthy process to verify that it is a fit guardian, that is a safe home, all of these factors that would only make sense if the child was going to someone other than their parent,” says Deck.
On Tuesday afternoon, a San Diego judge agreed. He ordered officials to stop treating these children as if they were unaccompanied, effectively ending the demand for fingerprints in cases like Contreras’s.
“It doesn’t mean that the places that are holding these minors are necessarily going to be more compliant with us,” says Deck. “It just means that they are legally obligated to be.”
For now, Contreras talks to her daughter on the phone on Tuesdays, when Yakelyn’s case manager lets her call. This week, Contreras asked Yakelyn to describe her day. She worries about a cough her daughter has developed. She makes her daughter promise she’ll tell her if anyone tries to harm her.
Mostly, she tries to make Yakelyn laugh, to make her forget why they’re separated. Contreras hopes that soon, this will no longer be an issue: that they’ll be able to talk again, laugh again, in person.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Southwest Key’s fingerprint requirement was mandated by federal policy.