Belinda Orozco, Staff Attorney with Michigan Immigrant Rights Center’s Grand Rapids office, speaks about her own experience separated from her family while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
This year, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center
is celebrating 10 years since our founding as a legal resource center for Michigan’s immigrant communities. We’ve represented unaccompanied children since our first day, and public interest in that part of our work has never been higher than it was in the summer of 2018 during the height of the family separation crisis.
We represented every single child who was separated from his or her parents and brought to Michigan during the Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy at the border. We’re proud that thanks to Michigan advocates, 100 percent of children separated from parents during that period were successfully reunited with their families. That still is not the case nationally. The engagement of Michigan communities in advocacy for separated children who were wrongly classified as “unaccompanied” was critical. But truly unaccompanied children continue to arrive in Michigan for custody in programs run by local faith-based social services organizations including Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas.
It’s vital that we continue to welcome them and seek to understand and respond to their circumstances and needs. One way we’re doing that is by welcoming our newest staff attorney, Belinda Orozco, to work on our unaccompanied children’s team. We’re grateful to Belinda for sharing her very personal journey to this work:
It’s been more than 30 years, and I still remember my first encounter with the U.S. Border Patrol. I was wearing bright pink 80s-style shorts that night. I remember wishing I hadn't worn them. It was too cold in the holding room I was placed in at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Station located in Brownsville, TX for my bright pink 80s shorts. I kept pulling down on the little pink shorts in hopes that they covered more of my small, goosebump-covered legs.
I felt a little discombobulated. I didn't know where I was, and I didn't see my two, slightly older brothers or mother (my father at this point was out of the picture). I was all alone in a cold concrete room with a large heavy door. The last thing I remember was dozing off to the sounds of the Matamoros' nightlife and the smell of car exhaust while we idled in a car-crowded line to cross over the Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge. My family and I were returning from one of many fun-filled trips of visiting my cousins that lived in downtown Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico.
It was late by the time my mother got in line to crossover the International Bridge, and it was much later by the time she pulled up to the U.S. Border Patrol station. I don't remember how I got into the holding room, but it wasn't long before someone entered the room in a blue uniform. I thought he was a police officer. I had hoped that he could see how cold I was and help me. Instead, this officer-looking person began asking me questions. I was reluctant to answer.
Was I in trouble? I didn’t know the answers to all of his questions: “Where do you live?” “Where were you born?” “Who taught you English?” I was only a child, but I did know the answer to the question of my mother's name. I proudly responded, "Mommy!" During the officer's questioning, I still kept tugging at my pink shorts and rubbing my cold arms. And now scared and intimidated, I began to cry. After further questioning, I was eventually reunited with my mother and brothers that night.
This would not be my last encounter with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol because of the proximity of where I was raised, near the Texas-Mexico border. This area is known as the Rio Grande Valley, the Valley, or el Valle. I find that the Texas-Mexico border also describes part of my identity. I identify myself as a Tejana. I’d define a Tejana as someone born in Texas of Mexican heritage and simultaneously having Texan and Mexican pride.
My Mexican heritage comes from my parents. My mother was born and raised in a small village nestled in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. While my father, born in the Lone Star State of Texas, is a second generation immigrant from Mexico. Life in “the Valley” — el Valle — is a beautiful mix of these two cultures. This two culture mix, Tex-Mex, is reflected in the people, food, language, music, and customs. It was a blurred line between Texas and Mexico despite being separated by the Rio Grande River and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol stations. As I grew up, my family and I frequently traveled in and out Mexico to visit family or for shopping and entertainment.
What happened to me that night with Border Patrol was not surprising. It is not an uncommon practice of separating children from the parents at the U.S. border for questioning. However, as we all learned as a nation this summer, this administration pursued a policy of family separation with no plan or ability to reunite children with their parents. Some of those children were brought to Michigan and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) represented them and advocated for their reunification with their families. In Michigan, we have not seen new family separation cases since the height of the family separation crisis, but truly unaccompanied children in immigration custody or released to family members continue to arrive in Michigan for care while they pursue asylum or other forms of legal protection in the U.S.
I’m proud to be the newest member of the unaccompanied children’s team at MIRC serving those children. My experiences will inform my work as an attorney and our whole team’s work as we continue to advocate for unaccompanied immigrant children in our community. With the right support, they can survive and thrive, and legal assistance is absolutely vital.
Photo courtesy of Belinda Orozco.