Artist Alicia Cruz works on an installation for SOMArts yearly Día de Muertos exhibit on Oct. 8, 2019. Cruz has visited immigration detention centers in Texas to provide mental health services to detainees there. Her installation draws from her experiences and is dedicated to those who have died while in detention or while trying to cross into the U.S. Photo: Mabel Jiménez

It’s been two months since Alicia Cruz last stood at the Greyhound bus station in San Antonio, Texas, offering therapeutic help to migrant families recently confined in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. 

She has limited time with some families—the majority of whom fled political turmoil and rampant violence in Central America—before a bus transports them to sponsors or relatives across the country. With other families, she may spend hours, listening intently as they explained the inhumanity that welcomed them at the southern border. 

“These families are just shredded; their souls are shredded to pieces. They’re in survival mode, they’re on high alert, they’re experiencing anxiety, insomnia, and nightmares,” said Cruz, a marriage and family therapist at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center.

Cruz was in disbelief when the U.S. Department of Justice implemented its “zero tolerance” policy last year, which detained and criminally prosecuted any adult for illegal entry or re-entry. Parents arriving with young children were no exception, thus beginning a toxic cycle of family separations at the border. 

“Even though family detention had been happening for a very long time, the idea that families were being separated was unheard of before,” she said. “That was a very loaded experience for me. I was responding as a mom but also as someone with a family that has suffered intergenerational trauma.”

U.S. immigration policies, being deeply rooted in systematic oppression and discrimination, have threatened the well-being of immigrant populations for decades. 

During the Great Depression, between one and two million people of Mexican descent, many of them American citizens, were “repatriated” to Mexico. Alicia Cruz’s grandmother, Bella (right), and her family were deported. Courtesy: Alicia Cruz

At the height of the Great Depression, nearly 1.8 million people of Mexican descent, most of them American citizens, were “repatriated” to Mexico to reserve “American jobs for real Americans.” Cruz’s grandmother was one of them. Only a child at the time, she and her family were forced to relocate to a country she had never known or seen.

In 1972, Cruz’s mother crossed into the United States despite having every legal right to enter as a child of an American citizen; she was eight months pregnant. Some families managed to return to their lives in the United States, but others were not so fortunate. 

The illegal deportation practices of the 1930s and informal raids that lacked due process, ripped families and communities apart, leaving lasting trauma and psychological scars. 

“This is what the country [United States] does over and over again,” Cruz said. “There’s a history of creating this subhuman kind of experience for people who have rights, but because they’re a person of color, they don’t value you.”

It’s that same injustice that moved Cruz to volunteer at the border, utilizing vacation days or donations from her San Francisco community. Since her first trip in January 2019, she has been able to provide resources and counseling to hundreds of migrants coping with trauma. She also works alongside the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas nonprofit that provides legal help to immigrant children, families and refugees. 

The year-long experience inspired her latest art installation “La Causa,” one of many traditional and contemporary altars featured in the annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition at SOMArts Cultural Center. “La Causa” is dedicated to the families that Cruz met in San Antonio and their ongoing fight to survive.

“The installation is just a footnote of what I’m trying to do. It’s a platform for the message of what’s happening and the brutal truth of what I’ve seen and heard,” Cruz said.

The Icebox

Unrest is mounting as a growing number of migrants, blocked at ports of entry by a series of immigration reforms, attempt border crossings in more life-threatening ways.

“Ayúdame, ayúdame por favor. Me estoy ahogando,” a mother from Honduras cried out, holding her three-year-old daughter above water as they crossed the Rio Grande.

She spotted a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer nearby and begged for help. But the man stood still and watched as the current swept the mother further down the perilous river with her daughter tightly gripped in her arms.

Exhausted and badly bruised by debris, the two made it to the river bank and were taken to a CBP facility. They spent hours locked in what many call “la hielera” or the icebox, a crowded and windowless holding room kept at freezing temperatures. The aluminum blankets provided did little to keep them warm for their clothes were still drenched with water. Her daughter caught a cold later that night, like many other migrants left in a room that never saw daylight.

Several weeks had passed before they were dropped off at the bus station and given one-way tickets out of San Antonio. Cruz sat with the family until their bus arrived, then it was back to work.

For many families released from detention and awaiting court hearings, uncertainty and distrust remain. 

“This mother will always be fearful of people in uniform, people you’re supposed to seek assistance from because of her experience,” Cruz said. “We need to help shift that narrative; otherwise, she and her daughter will always have a barrier between themselves and healing.”

Life in Cages

Detail of an installation by artist Alicia Cruz for SOMArts Day of the Dead exhibit on Oct. 8, 2019. Cruz’s installation is dedicated to asylum seekers who have died while trying to cross into the United States or in detention camps. Photo: Mabel Jiménez

The Flores Settlement Agreement (established in 1997 as a settlement to the California class-action suite Flores v. Reno) states CBP should not hold unaccompanied minors for more than 72 hours and requires their release from ICE detention centers within 20 days. Yet despite protections granted under the agreement, which sets standards for the treatment of migrant children, hundreds of families still find themselves trapped in a system of prolonged detention and worsening conditions. 

Adults were divided among chain-link fences—often derided as “la perrera,” meaning the dog pound—leaving children to take care of each other in facilities that lacked adequate access to food and water, medical care, and basic sanitation. 

“Animals are treated better than this,” families told Cruz.

Their stories weigh heavily on her mind, each one detailing the horrors inflicted on migrants. 

“In the cages, sometimes children will try to console each other,” Cruz said through tears. “I think it’s kind of innate in our bodies to do that. We’re human that way. But then the officers will bang on the cage, have them separated or tell them to stop being babies.”

Cruz took a deep breath. “I just don’t understand it,” she said.

Statements describing mistreatment and neglect among guards continued to surface during her conversations with families. Parents said they were yelled at if caught waving to their children in separate cages, mothers were denied clean diapers for their babies, and adults were forced to stay standing in the middle of the night.

There was a 10-year-old-boy who couldn’t stop crying, a family told Cruz. Officers moved the child outside of the cage for a timeout and waited until he calmed himself down. He sat on the floor, his wrists in handcuffs.

“Imagine that kind of trauma. You can’t ever forget that, and that’s going to live with this child for the rest of his life. This is what creates the next generation of abuse,” Cruz said.

According to a September 2019 Health and Human Services report, separated children suffered from elevated levels of mental distress, exhibited feelings of abandonment, and experienced “acute grief that caused them to cry inconsolably.” 

Children coping with trauma are at a higher risk of mental health disorders, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide-related behaviors that can lead to lifelong problems as they get older.

Signs of trauma

Detail of an installation by artist Alicia Cruz for SOMArts Day of the Dead exhibit on Oct. 8, 2019. Cruz’s installation is dedicated to asylum seekers who have died while trying to cross into the United States or in detention camps. Photo: Mabel Jiménez

Cruz knew she had to approach the older children differently, understanding the grim reality that they were torn from their families. She sat with them for a while and apologized for the journey no child should have to go through.

“Some of them cry, but for the most part, they had this disassociated look on their face, like they’ve gone away somewhere,” Cruz said. “I’d like to tell them that it’s gonna get easier, but it’s not. It’s gonna get harder because they remember this in a different way than a younger child would.”

The “zero-tolerance” policy didn’t just separate thousands of families; it left them with irreparable physical damage and emotional trauma, which manifests differently from person to person. 

Infants and young children may become more clingy to their parents, begin wetting their beds or are unable to sleep and bathe alone. Teenagers may tend to withdraw or act out, according to Cruz. She reminds parents to be patient with their children, to look for the signs, and to utilize the resources available to them at all costs. 

“It’s important to normalize this experience for them. They’ll recover, but it will take time,” Cruz said.

End the war on immigrants

“We’ll ask the families, ‘Would you have done this if you knew your child would be separated from you?’ and they’ll say ‘Yes I would do that because I’d be willing to risk my relationship with my child and sever that for the sake of my child living.’ They don’t come here for a better life. They come here to stay alive. It’s very different because it’s a do or die,” Cruz said.

This December, Cruz will join a group of bilingual therapists to Mexican border towns to provide therapeutic support to asylum seekers, many of whom are stuck in a state of limbo after new restrictions threaten their right to seek protection. It will be her sixth volunteer trip this year, but the work doesn’t stop there.

Cruz stresses the obligation that people have to stand up and speak out against the injustices happening to migrants. Opportunities to help are endless, she said. One can call and email elected officials, volunteer as a translator or attorney, or donate to local organizations that provide legal aid, food and shelter, and bonds to migrant families.