A Guatemalan mother and daughter who were separated under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy have a message for Americans before the State of the Union address: Immigrants are not worth less than you, no matter what the president says in his speech on Tuesday night.
“Don’t keep telling us that we are lesser, because we are all equal,” Albertina Contreras Teletor told The Daily Beast. “Immigration is a right that we all have.”
When Albertina and her daughter, Yakelin Garcia Contreras, were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border nine months ago, they were called “animals” by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents before being separated for more than two months. Now, Albertina and Yakelin will walk into the U.S. Capitol as invited guests of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), one of at least four members of Congress who have invited undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients to the State of the Union address.
For Albertina and Yakelin, both victims of the Trump administration’s policy of removing migrant children from their families when they crossed into the United States, the change in circumstance has been surreal.
“I’m so happy for the opportunity that they’re giving us,” Albertina said in Spanish, translated by Taylor Levy, legal coordinator of the non-profit Annunciation House. “It’s just felt so different from all of the pain that we’ve suffered.”
“I just feel so happy to have this big opportunity, to be so little and actually meet a senator!” said Yakelin, who is celebrating her 12th birthday on Tuesday.
Despite their excitement, Albertina and Yakelin have not forgotten that their presence in the House Chamber will mean that they will be in the same room as Trump, whose policies separated them and whose public statements about immigrants and asylum seekers have painted them as violent criminals.
“One of the big things that hit her when she was arrested was that she and her daughter were told, ‘you’re animals,’” said Andrew Free, Albertina’s immigration attorney. Attending the State of the Union address “is very much about restoring the humanity of each person, whether they are a refugee, an immigrant, or they run the most powerful government in the world.”
Albertina left Guatemala with Yakelin last spring, hoping to escape a violent ex-boyfriend who frequently beat her in front of her three children. He, too, called her an “animal,” she said.
Leaving her two younger sons in the care of her sister, Albertina took Yakelin on the three-week journey to the United States in search of safe haven. But after they were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, Albertina went weeks not knowing where her daughter was. When Trump signed an executive order officially ending the family separation policy one month later, Albertina was released—but still had no idea where her daughter was.
“When she arrived at Annunciation House, she was with six other moms, and they showed up in a van all thinking their children were inside,” said Levy. “They all thought that I had their children, and I was about to bring them to their children.”
“That was one of the worst things that I think happened all summer—they were just so excited, thinking that they were gonna see their children any minute,” Levy said.
“They told us that as soon as we got out of jail, that they were going to take us to our children, and I was hoping to see my daughter there,” Albertina said.
It took another month, and a court order, for Yakelin to be located and reunited with her mother.
“I hugged her so tightly and now this time I couldn’t stop crying because I was so happy instead of being so sad!” Yakelin said. “I was so thankful to God that we were reunited and that He had taken care of us, because I had been so worried.”
The pain of the separation is still fresh for Albertina, who expressed disbelief that administration officials like Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen have continued to deny that any family separation policy existed.
“If it didn’t exist, then they wouldn’t have separated families like they separated us,” Albertina said. “I can’t believe that they would say that.”
Albertina said she was “nervous” to see Trump’s address, where he is expected to give a forceful defense of his hardline immigration policies, and to push for Congress to take them even further.
“When you hear these bad insults, what you end up feeling is that it makes immigrants scared, and it brings a lot of fear to the immigrants,” said Yakelin. “Because the insults are so strong, it makes the immigrants feel scared.”
Asked what she thinks of the man whose administration separated her from her daughter, Albertina was more succinct.
“That he’s a racist,” Albertina said.
Albertina and Yakelin’s presence in the nation’s capital—which will include meetings with other immigrants attending the address, a sitdown with Merkley, and a walkthrough of the Capitol—will force Trump to directly face the people whose lives were upended by his administration’s immigration policies, Merkley’s office said.
“Albertina and Yakelin’s experiences of being separated are a powerful illustration of the cruelty and lasting impact of the policies that the Trump administration put in place to deter families fleeing persecution abroad,” said Martina McLennan, Merkley’s deputy communications director. “Sen. Merkley is using this moment to shine a light on the reality of what has been happening at the border.”
“This child separation policy came from a dark and evil place within the heart of this administration,” Merkley said in a statement. “Innocent children suffered because of deeds that were carried out in our names and using our tax dollars as Americans. I’m bringing Albertina and Yakelin as my guests to the State of the Union because we need to bear witness to the suffering that this cruel policy inflicted, and resolve to make sure that nothing like this ever happens in the United States of America again.”
Even if the president takes no note of the undocumented immigrants witnessing his speech, Free said, Albertina and Yakelin’s presence in the Capitol will symbolize the true state of the American union—for better and for worse.
“The biggest thing separating the experiences of people like Yakelin and Albertina in Central America from our experiences in Americans... is the rule of law, and when the rule of law ceases to hold those accountable to those who break the law, those distinctions start to dissolve,” Free said. “Those who have torn these people apart have not yet been held accountable.”