Watch: 6-Year-Old Girl, Alone, Breaks Through Immigration Noise With A Phone Number
As the other kids cry inconsolably on an audio recording of migrant children, 6-year-old Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid can be heard pleading for someone to call her aunt — reciting the number in Spanish.
Jimena is from El Salvador, and had just crossed into the U.S. before she was detained and separated from her mother.
In the seven-minute secret recording, kids between the ages of 4 and 10 are screaming and wailing for their parents. The audio was secretly recorded inside a Border Patrol detention center and obtained by ProPublica. The audio, released this week, sparked national outcry and condemnation.
ProPublica has followed up with the 6-year-old girl. In the above video, reporter Ginger Thompson meets in Houston with the girl's aunt and cousin, and was able to call Jimena. The aunt, who is also seeking asylum along with her daughter, does not want to be identified because she worries public attention might affect her case.
"What do you want to do when you get here?" Jimena's cousin asks.
"First, I want to take a bath, a really hot bath. Then I want to eat," Jimena responds.
Jimena and her mom are being held in separate detention centers: Jimena is in a facility in Phoenix, while her mom is detained more than 1,200 miles away in Port Isabel, Texas.
Thompson spoke with NPR's All Things Considered on Tuesday, after the recording that captures Jimena and nearly a dozen other young children, was released.
"A lot of times journalists, what we do to try to explain a reality — a big reality that involves thousands of people — is we try to find one case, go in deep on one as a way to show a larger reality.
"Could we say that this is what it looks like in every place? I don't think we purport to say that this is what it looks like in every place. But we say that this is certainly what it looks like here. And if it looks like this here, it raises questions about what it looks like in other places, and I think gives some indication of what things might look like in other places."
"It was shocking, to be honest," Thompson continued. "I have lots of small children in my own family, and their voices kept ringing through my head as I was listening to the voices of these kids and thinking about what must these kids be going through. It's just incredibly powerful."
Memorizing her aunt's phone number was critical to Jimena being able to connect with her aunt, and it may result in eventually being reunified with her mother. Under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents after crossing the border. Thompson reports that that puts the burden for providing contact information on these children. Many may not be as lucky as Jimena, because they are either too young to memorize their family members' contact information, or do not know to.
"Jimena's aunt said the consular official who eventually helped Jimena call her was struck by the child's ability to stay composed under that kind of pressure. 'Of all the children here, she's the only one who provided information,' the official told her. 'Most children here aren't able to give names, much less a phone number.'
"The aunt said when she first heard Jimena's voice on the phone 'I threw myself out of bed and fell on my knees. I thanked God that she remembered the number. If not, I don't know what would have happened to her.' "
Jimena's aunt says she's worried about the other children stuck in the same predicament. "It's really hard," she tells Thompson. "I can't imagine the magnitude of these children's suffering, the psychological and emotional damage that the older and younger kids there have."
Thompson tells NPR's Morning Edition on Friday that the prospect of reunification between Jimena and her mom, like that of other children separated from their parents after crossing the border, remains uncertain.
"There's no idea when she'll see her daughter again," Thompson says. "She was told that she would be reunited with her daughter, but there's been no plan for exactly how these reunifications are going to happen."