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Salvadoran Girl Whose Cries Highlighted the Cruelty of Family Separation Policy Embraces New Life

After she was separated from her mother at the border, 6-year-old Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid was recorded begging to make a phone call over the sobs of other children. A video shows how she and her mom are coping with their life in Texas.

Nadia Sussman/ProPublica

This year, the Trump administration turned the United States immigration system on its head, making a program that was once designed to uphold the principle of family unity into one that tore families apart. Nearly 3,000 children were separated from their families under the administration’s so-called zero-tolerance policy. But all it took was one child to trigger a storm of condemnation that brought the policy down.

Six-year-old Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid, of El Salvador, and her mother, Cindy Madrid, had come across the border in early June. Madrid pleaded for asylum, saying that members of her country’s ruthless street gangs had threatened to kill her and her daughter. Border Patrol agents almost immediately separated the mother and daughter at a Customs and Border Protection holding facility in Texas. There, Jimena’s pleas for help, along with the agonizing cries of numerous other separated children like her, were recorded.

That recording was provided to ProPublica, which authenticated and published it. Within hours, it was being played around the world, including at a White House press conference. Two days later, the Trump administration retreated from zero tolerance. Jimena and her mother were soon released from federal custody and reunited shortly afterward.

Since then, mother and daughter have moved out of the spotlight and into a relative’s garage in Houston, while they pursue their asylum claim. This video by ProPublica video journalist Nadia Sussman provides a glimpse of their new lives, and of Jimena’s resilience.

It’s hard to believe she’s the same deeply distressed girl who was heard on the audio, pleading with authorities to let her make a phone call to her aunt. In this video, she’s all smiles and sassy. She shows off her impressive array of baby dolls — each one with a name and a life story — her skills in the kitchen and her ability to recite short poems in English.

Madrid told me that Jimena didn’t like school at first. She complained that the kids weren’t friendly, and that she didn’t like cafeteria food. Madrid believes Jimena didn’t like going to school because she was still suffering from the trauma of their separation. “She didn’t want to leave my side,” Madrid recalled.

Jimena seems over that now, Madrid said, thanks to the help of a psychologist, who agreed to see Jimena for free, and a gaggle of new friends at school.

Meanwhile, Madrid has begun making new friends, too. She’s joined a Christian Salvadoran social club and enrolled in night school to learn English so that she can find a job and keep up with Jimena.

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Portrait of Ginger Thompson

Ginger Thompson

Ginger Thompson is ProPublica's chief of correspondents.

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