Lawmakers have long used their plus-one invitations to the annual State of the Union address to send political messages to the President, and this year is no different. Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren invited federal workers who saw their paychecks delayed as a result of the longest shutdown in government history. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand asked a Navy Lieutenant Commander impacted by President Donald Trump’s transgender troop ban. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar will bring a mother whose son died as a result of not being able to afford insulin critical for treatment of his Type 1 diabetes, a tragedy the Minnesotan lawmaker blames on insurance regulations and skyrocketing prescription costs.
But no issue is closer to Trump’s political persona — or his future political prospects — than security at the southern border and Sen. Jeff Merkley’s choice of guests, Albertina and Yaquelin Contreras, a mother and daughter who were separated for nearly six weeks by U.S. authorities in 2018, is a full-throated indictment of the President’s tactics on that front.
“I’m bringing Albertina and [Yaquelin] 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,” the Oregon Democrat said in a press release that was sharply critical of the Trump administration’s so-called zero tolerance policy. Formally announced last April, the policy has resulted in thousands of migrant children, including toddlers, being forcibly separated, sometimes indefinitely, from their parents at the southern border.
“This child separation policy came from a dark and evil place within the heart of this administration,” Merkley added.
Albertina, 27, and her daughter, who turns 12 on Feb. 5, were featured on TIME magazine’s Feb. 4 cover as part of a special report on global migration, to which I contributed reporting. In late November, I was asked to locate a representative family who had been separated by U.S. authorities as part of this Trump administration policy, and eventually found Albertina and Yaquelin through their immigration lawyer. In early December, I traveled to Murfreesboro, Tenn. to meet Albertina and Yaquelin, where they are awaiting asylum proceedings.
After briefly interviewing Albertina and Yaquelin at the small, rented house they share with two other families, our team of journalists relocated to a shed behind a Mexican restaurant nearby. Throughout our interview, Albertina picked at her fingernails and blinked back tears. She described having survived years of horrific sexual violence, including multiple rapes, and explained her decision, in early 2018, to flee her family’s home in Cubulco, Guatemala with her nearly-adolescent daughter—even though that meant leaving her young sons behind. “The choice to leave behind two of my kids was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to make,” she told TIME through a translator, “but I just had to think that the sacrifice I was making would mean a better future for all of them.”
Albertina said she worried that if she didn’t take Yaquelin away from Cubulco, she too would be sexually assaulted or raped. “She’s on the cusp of that time period of being 13 or 14 years old, and that’s when the girls get picked up,” she told me, once Yaquelin was out of earshot. Albertina also said she feared that if she didn’t flee, she would be killed. “There are a lot of women in my country who are killed, or, just because of the pain they’re going through, they kill themselves,” she said. “I was raped many times. I wouldn’t call the police because it was not useful.”
Albertina described her and Yaquelin’s harrowing journey to the U.S., which took them three weeks and $6,000, only to be separated for a period twice that long once they crossed into Texas. She told TIME that U.S. border officials were verbally abusive to her, calling her an animal. She was eventually placed in solitary confinement and shackled during transit. But the hardest part, she told me, was being forcibly separated from her daughter. For days, she had no idea where her daughter had been taken and for weeks, she was not allowed to see the little girl. “That part was what caused the most anguish, not knowing in the moment what is happening with your kids,” she said.
Albertina and Yaquelin are among thousands of migrant families caught up in the Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. According to estimates from the Department of Homeland Security, at least 2,000 children were separated at the border. But a January inspector general report from the Department of Health and Human Services suggests the number may be significantly higher. The report revealed the Trump Administration likely started separating families in 2017, long before former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy to the public in April 2018, resulting in the separation of thousands more children than previously estimated.
The policy is only one component of the Trump Administration’s hard-line stance on immigration. Trump also sent 5,000 troops to the border in October to defend against waves of asylum seekers, attempted to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, launched federal legal action against cities that protect undocumented migrants, and called on Congress to fund a $5 billion wall at the southern border—a demand that catalyzed the government shutdown.
Trump has also regularly employed language describing migrants as violent gang members and reckless criminals, a characterization that will also be represented at the State of the Union address. Tennessee Republicans Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Rep. Tim Burchett have invited Knoxville Fire Department Capt. D.J. Corcoran and Wendy Corcoran, the parents of 22-year-old Pierce Corcoran, who was killed in a car crash with a driver who is an undocumented immigrant. Using such tragedies, President Trump has often characterized the state of immigration at the southern border as a danger to Americans’ safety.
But government records indicate that those actually arriving at border posts and presenting themselves to Border Patrol agents overwhelmingly look like Albertina and Yaquelin. According to the U.S. government, a significant proportion of the migrants who have attempted to enter along the southern border in recent months are children and families fleeing violence, rape, and hunger in Central America. In Fiscal Year 2018, 159,590 migrants filed for asylum — a 274% increase over 2008’s figure. Meanwhile, however, officials at the border made nearly 70% fewer total border apprehensions in 2018 than they did in 2000.
“Most experts agree that there is no crisis at the southern border,” William Banks, an international security expert and law professor at Syracuse University, recently told me in an interview. “Indeed, the heads of our intelligence agencies released their Worldwide Threat Assessment [last] week and reviewed a significant set of risks and challenges confronting the national security. The southern border and migration were not on the list.”
Still, Albertina has no regrets. She was disturbed by her treatment at the border and by the incendiary politics of immigration in the U.S. But it’s worth enduring if it means she does not fear for her daughter’s safety and for her own life.
“I had a traumatic experience when I first got here but I have to get over it,” she said. “It’s in the past now and I remember that I lived through worse when I was in Guatemala.”