It was four in the morning when they came to take away my daughter.
I couldn’t ignore that impatient, impudent knock. And to this day I cannot forget its drumbeat affect in the predawn silence, as if to warn the neighbors about me.
“We have come to take your daughter,” one of the officers informed me when I opened the door, and added, “It’s per the court order.” The second officer then handed me a court order signed by a Houston judge.
“But why?” I asked.
“The court thinks that you may be a flight risk,” the officer said sternly.
That made my ordeal hardly any different from those of the men and women stranded and separated from their children at the U.S. borders. Like them, I am an immigrant. Even though I was a legal permanent resident, my little family, made up of my then-three-year-old daughter and I, was broken up just like those families have been. Except, while those families have been separated for trying to enter this country, mine was separated on the suspicion that I was trying to flee. In both cases though, our stories didn’t matter. And the authorities cared even less about the trauma we suffered.
Fifteen years, many subsequent court battles, gut-wrenching losses and thousands of dollars later, I am still haunted by my daughter’s wailing when she woke in our bedroom because of the commotion at our door.
They wouldn’t let me brush her teeth or comb her hair, or even take her to the toilet on my own. They barely gave me enough time to change her diaper, and as soon as I was done, one officer scooped her from the bed. From that moment, my daughter was in the state’s possession.
It was a cry unlike anything I had heard from my daughter before. And then the cries turned to fear, the eyes became still, the lip quivered less and her breathing sped up, as if she could sense that her mamma wouldn’t pick her up and hold her that time. That made me feel like a criminal twice over — to the state and to my daughter.
For the two officers, it was a mundane and routine matter, as though in their books all immigrants, legal or illegal, deserved the same treatment, and part of their job was to make an example of us.
It was only after my daughter had been buckled up in the back of their car that I mustered just enough courage to ask for more details.
“Your ex-husband thinks that you may flee the country with your daughter,” one of them said.
“Flee to where . . ?” I asked.
“Talk to the judge.” The officer responded.
"Where are you taking her?"
They wouldn't say.
“How do I get my child back?”
“The judge decides.”
How could the judge make a call on the medical needs of my daughter?
At birth my daughter had sustained severe nerve injury that badly impaired her right arm. Even after five surgeries at Texas Children’s Hospital and countless therapies, her right arm was barely functional.
I decided to take her to Kerala, India, after talking to doctors there who specialized in alternative nerve treatment. Not only was I born and brought up there, but I had the family support I’d need during my stay there.
I told my plans to my then-husband, from whom I had separated. Two days later, he filed a motion in court to prevent me from traveling abroad. All it took was his words for the judge to issue the order to take my daughter away.
There is a strange power to using a child as a pawn, whether it’s an estranged spouse, gangsters and extortionists, drug cartels, terrorist groups, child-kidnapping syndicates or the state machinery. They all have used it to the maximum effect over the years.
To get my daughter back, I would have to appear in court.
When I arrived at the courthouse later that day, nobody would tell me where my daughter was, or where she had been held since the officers took her in the middle of the night.
The judge ordered that if I wanted my daughter back, I would have to surrender both our passports. I tried to explain: her medical condition; my permanent residency; my stable well-paying job as a programmer; her father’s lack of monetary support towards her maintenance at the time; and most importantly, that I had reached out to inform her dad of our plans.
To no avail. In cases involving immigrants, there is little room for judges to think outside the box, let alone set new precedents.
“Ma’am, your passport or your daughter,” the judge repeated impatiently. Well, the choice was too stark to give it much thought.
It took all of 10 minutes for him to hand down his decision, and in one broad brushstroke, I became a flight-risk parent. To get my daughter back, I had to let the state brand me as a potential child-abductor at the cost of my daughter’s unique needs.
I drove back home to pick up our passports, and handed them over to the court clerk. In return, the court gave me back my daughter. We had been separated for 12 hours at that point. She was too young to be able to convey any specific information about where she had been — only that there had been toys there.
That left us confined to the U.S.
By signing on the dotted line, we were cut off from any treatment or help or second opinion, cut off from even the hope that there was hope for my daughter. That hopelessness changed our two lives for the next 13 years, and her destiny, perhaps, forever.
Some may argue it wasn’t the judge’s job, or that of the state, to worry about my child’s well-being. They are right; it was ours – her father’s and mine. Like those immigrants from El Salvador traveling thousands of miles for their kids’ future; those parents paying thousands to smugglers to get into the U.S.; or those working illegally here to support their families, it was our job as her parents to get her the best doctor, the best possible treatment, or whatever it took and wherever it took us to give her another chance at healing, at life itself.
My daughter underwent new rounds of surgeries here, her nerves wired and re-wired, her arm strapped to large braces for support, all the while living on painkillers. And I kept filing one motion after another, losing over and over in various courts, as no judge would entertain my plea to leave the country on medical grounds.
It took 13 years for us to finally get her passport back. For her hand, though, it was too late.
The lesser-used right arm became distinctly different from the left one, shorter and slightly bent inward. She would never be able to comb the back of her hair, hook her bra, clip her left finger- and toe-nails with the right hand or reach overhead.
I don’t know if the Indian treatment would have worked for her, or what would have happened to us if I had risked leaving discreetly. It’s quite possible that her hand wouldn’t have improved one bit in India, and upon return I would have had to pay a heavy price — jail term, separation from her or both — for leaving the country with her.
But there is a wafer-thin chance that the arm would have gained some strength from the nerve treatment, her bones and muscles some heft and density.
Wouldn’t it be worth the risk if that could help her comb and clip and hook on her own?
Just ask those parents, those moms and dads who are risking it all, from separations to even their lives, while crossing borders just to give their kids a chance at life.