Azalea Aleman-Bendiks, a federal public defender helping migrants in McAllen, Texas, tells PEOPLE in a June 11 interview that when several of her clients were separated from their children after crossing the Southern U.S. border illegally to seek asylum, they were incorrectly made to be believe that their children were simply being temporarily taken away to receive a bath.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Aleman-Bendiks, adding that unfortunately this isn’t a unique story, but “something I’ve heard over and over again.”
She went on to share a story she heard from two of her clients, who were with their children at a processing center when they were allegedly told by Border Patrol agents, “We are taking your children for a bath.”
“They never brought them back, they never told them,” explains the public defender. “They didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were being separated and that they were being brought to court and prosecuted and that the children would be taken on a whole different path.”
“That is absolutely the truth and something I’ve heard over and over again,” Aleman-Bendiks continues, explaining that she’s also heard similar stories from “other volunteer immigration civil rights lawyers.”
“And they’ve done it in different versions,” she adds. “I have another client who said she was woken up and told to come to court. She had been allowed to be in the detention center with her young son, I think he was 5.”
After being woken up, “she did the motherly thing and put him on her shoulder because they were waking her up to go to another room and they told her, ‘No, put him down, he’s too heavy, put him down’ and they walked her to another room, closed the bars and that’s when they told her ‘We’re separating you from your son.’ She was hysterical that morning because it had happened that morning,” says the public defender.
“It haunts me, it still does,” she remarks. “I can’t imagine what they are telling these children, what could they possibly by telling these children?”
Continuing, she says, “Either way it’s trauma, that is what these parents are going through and what these children are going through and there is nothing they can do to comfort them and make up for what they are doing.”
Dona Abbott, the Michigan branch director of refugee services at Bethany Christian Services’ Grand Rapids — an organization that has helped place at least 65 children separated from their parents at the border into foster care in Michigan alone — tells PEOPLE that the newly separated children suffer trauma that is expressed through nightmares, anxiety, stomach aches, crying, and acting out.
“When you are talking about very young children, their whole world depends on their parents for safety,” she explains. “The separation is so traumatic, you have parents crying and wanting to hold onto their child, you have people not used to handling the situation and they don’t know how to deal with it.”
She adds that while “parents do their best at the last minute” to provide their children with “addresses or phone numbers” to contact, “sometimes those [phone numbers] have been disconnected, [and] we can’t use the information the child comes with.”
Abbott also tells PEOPLE that she has heard of a parent being separated from their child after being told they were just being taken to get a bath.
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“I think it’s wrong to separate children from parents. The right to parent your child should be an automatic given,” adds Abbot.
“The parent kept a child safe in an unsafe country, kept their child safe in a journey that was difficult, and then they come to the country where they say ‘I need asylum’ and then suddenly they are told you have not done a good job keeping your child safe and they are taken from you and placed in foster care. A parent must feel terribly shocked and overwhelmed by that,” she continues.
“We are keeping families together,” Trump said in the Oval Office, where he was joined by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Vice President Mike Pence.
The president’s remarks came amid overwhelming backlash against the policy that has resulted in 2,342 children being separated from their parents since May after crossing the Southern U.S. border.