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Released and reunited: “My daughter was locked in the 'ice box'. They told her they were going to bathe her daughter and she never saw her again"

Ramón tells the story of what his daughter and granddaughter went through in their detention centers. As a consequence of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents. This is one of the stories we tracked down thanks to ProPublica's project in partnership with other media outlets, which allows family members to track down loved ones.
19 Jul 2018 – 05:30 PM EDT
Dora Alicia Martínez and her daughter Paula Leticia. Crédito: Art David Maris

Country of origin: El Salvador.

Date and place of detention: McAllen (Texas), June 8 th, 2018.

Who is looking for them: Father and grandfather (Antonio).

Detained mother: Dora Alicia Martínez Gómez.

Child detained in shelter: Paula Leticia (6 years old).

Child location (approximate): Pennsylvania.

Detention Center where adult is detained: Port Isabel, Los Fresnos, Texas.

Have they communicated?: Three times with the girl, one with the mother.

Hours after this story was published, mother and daughter were released from their detention center and shelter and are now reunited with their family in the US.


“They were basically separated through deception. My little girl was taken from her mother. She was locked in the 'ice box' (cold detention rooms set up by ICE) and they told her that my little girl would be somewhere else. Then another person came to say ‘I’m sorry, but your girl won’t stay with you, your girl is going to a shelter home’ ... so they lied to her”.

Paula Leticia is this little girl. This 6-year-old is in a shelter in Pennsylvania. Dora Alicia Martinez Gomez is her mother, detained at an ICE center in Texas, where mothers on Monday signed a letter to protest their situation.

Ramón, the father, has been undocumented in the United States for a year. He is in a state far from where the girl and the mother are. The couple's three other daughters, who are younger than Paula Leticia, stayed back in El Salvador, in the care of one of Ramón's sisters. One is a 3-year-old girl and the twins, who are 2 years old.

Ramón is not his real name, it is being withheld to protect his identity due to his immigration status. “I don’t know what is going on, if they will reunite my partner with my daughter and when. I can’t stand this pain inside”.

The last time he spoke again with Paula Leticia, he said, “she tells me, ‘Dad, when are you going to get me out of here, when are you going to come and get me out?’, and she starts crying”. When he spoke with Dora Alicia, his partner, she told him, “it's ugly here, but I can’t tell you more because I think they are recording us, watching us”.

Ramón fled harassment from MS gangs in El Salvador, where he was born and where he lived. He ran an egg-selling business he inherited from his father, and his brother-in-law was in charge of selling seafood. But “then they tried to extort money from my sister’s husband because they thought he made money with seafood and that he owned both businesses. They asked for money and he refused, and they killed him ... The MS gang killed him and we had to flee”, explains Ramón on the phone.

He warns us that his story is very long, that he has gone through many things, but he never imagined that his ex-wife would travel with the girl. "It's something that you know is very dangerous. If she had told me, I would have told her not to do it, but she didn’t say anything”.

“We went back to business and a year later (the gang members) began to ask us for money, that we had to pay them. At first, they charged $15 a day, but they wanted $1,500. That’s what they do to get one of their people out of jail, to pay for lawyers and all that. I was able to gather $1,000 and didn’t hear from them in eight months, but then they came back and wanted $2,500”.

Because they did not pay, they threatened to harm the girls and the family. That is why Ramón went to a nearby town, Santa Tecla, La Libertad, with his sister and his daughters' mother, whom he left before traveling to the US. “I got a permit to carry a gun to take care of my family”, he said. But the threats came back when they returned to the town, and then he decided to go north. He was not aware that his wife would follow him with his daughter and move from Reynosa, Mexico, to McAllen, Texas, where they were detained on June 8 th, 2018.

Ramon only knows that his daughter is in a shelter in Pennsylvania, but he does not know the name. “They do not want to give me that information”, but on Monday, July 9 th, a lawyer called him and explained: “They want the children to go to court alone and she (the lawyer) told me she was going to represent the girl. They called me again almost a month later. This hurts a lot, mija, a lot".

He also learned that the mother, who is in the detention center of Port Isabel, in Los Fresnos, Texas, got a DNA test. But the girl was not tested. “They still don’t know how they are going to be reunited ... they told me that I could sponsor her, that I could visit her, but how, if I do not have legal documents".

The last time he spoke with Dora Alicia, she told him being there was “something horrible”, but he could not tell if they had “done something” to her on the way or the detention center. She could speak very little, but she assured him she didn't know there was a possibility she would be separated from her daughter.

The last time he spoke with Paula Isabel he felt she was calmer.

“She never cries, but in the end she did cry. I worry about the pain in her feet... her feet get cold and it hurts. She walks well, but they always hurt and I think about that, when her little feet hurt”.

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