Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“It caught my breath,” says Susan Saudek. She was answering phones for the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition’s detention line when a man called from a Maryland detention facility explaining that he had crossed the border on May 29, and had been separated from his daughter, who is one-and-a-half, on May 30. He had been transported to Maryland, and had no idea where his baby was.

“It’s been haunting me since Thursday,” says Saudek. “Imagine having a one-and-a-half-year-old baby—somewhere. You don’t know where.” She says she asked him why he had fled Honduras, and he told her that gangs there were snatching babies to sell their organs.

In a small office in a building on K Street NW, volunteers for CAIR’s detention hotline have heard firsthand from some of the immigrants who were separated from their children at the border under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. CAIR’s detention hotline serves the approximately 1400 adult immigrants who are detained at facilities in Maryland and Virginia.

The story Saudek heard was brutal—a separation between parent and child so blatant it stunned her. But at its core, it was also routine. As a volunteer at the detention line, she has found that the separation of immigrant children from their parents is typical.

“This has been unprecedented, what we’re seeing at the border,” says Kelly White, an attorney and program director at CAIR. “But it’s also part of an escalating policy we’re seeing from this administration.” She ticked off a list of the ways CAIR’s clients have lost their children: law enforcement stop a family at a traffic light and the parents go to jail; Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids a workplace and children go home to no parents; people get caught at the airport.

“Frankly, in our work we see parents separated from their children on a daily basis,” she says. “Our immigration system is creating geographic orphans.”

In this most recent crisis, immigrant parents were separated from their children at the border under “zero tolerance” rules. In the past few days, border security officials reverted back to a “catch and release” approach, whereby immigrants caught at the U.S. and Mexico border are released if they agree to return for a court hearing. White House officials say that “zero tolerance” is still in place, but that the government doesn’t have sufficient space in detention facilities at this time. The New York Timesreported yesterday that the Pentagon is preparing to build housing for migrants, including children, at two Texas military bases.

CAIR estimates that at least 26 children who were separated from their parents over the past few months under “zero tolerance” are now staying in Maryland and Virginia detention facilities, and that 18 of those children are under 11 years old. (CAIR serves detained children in several ways, including by providing legal representation, accompanying minors in court, and training them on their rights.) The organization says that at least five parents who were separated from their children during the same period are locked up in Maryland and Virginia jails. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to requests for comparison data.

But CAIR’s detention hotline is constantly overwhelmed with calls from parents who have been separated from their children and other detained immigrants seeking help. Volunteer coordinator Kate Lappin counted 272 calls yesterday, and the volunteer working was able to answer 74 of them. The line is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with up to two volunteers working at a time, generally in two-hour shifts. But it’s summer, and many of the students who usually staff the line are away for other internships. Yesterday, one volunteer came and worked a five-hour shift.

CAIR staff says that the bulk of the calls come from men who are jailed in one of six area detention facilities. (In Virginia, immigrants are detained at the Farmville Detention Center and the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail. In Maryland, they are at the Frederick County Detention Center, Howard County Detention Center, Worcester County Detention Center, and the Anne Arundel County Ordnance Road Detention Center.)

White explains that the bulk of the immigrants she sees who make the harrowing, high-risk journey to the U.S. report being persecuted and fear deadly violence in the nations they emigrate from. “I think there is a lot of misinformation that parents are just coming here to work,” she says.

Volunteers and attorneys also travel to detention facilities, departing at 5 in the morning and returning home at 7 p.m., to meet in person with detainees and record their stories in hopes of connecting them with attorneys. The volunteers translate the immigrants’ words into English. They speak many languages, but mainly Spanish, French, Arabic, and Mandarin.

Denise Woods, a non-student volunteer who speaks Spanish, recently upped her weekly hotline commitment from 2 hours to 6 or 8. She, too, got a call from a desperate father last week. “All the sudden the border was in my phone, because this man was saying, ‘Can you help me? I haven’t talked to my 5-year-old since I was put in detention, and I have to let her know I’m OK. Can you help me?’”

This man was from India rather than Central America, and had not been caught in this most recent border crisis. He told Woods that he was desperate, that his daughter was in foster care but that he had not been able to speak to her at all. “So it’s a very different animal from what we’re hearing about on the border,” says Woods, “but it’s also the same thing.”