This Is What 'Zero Tolerance' Sounds Like

Illustration for article titled This Is What 'Zero Tolerance' Sounds Like
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At ProPublica, reporter Ginger Thompson has obtained what might be the most potent illustration of the impact of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy: stomach-churning audio of the sobs and frantic pleading of young children who have been stolen from their parents by the U.S. government. The audio was taken inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility, and it is—I’ll warn you—extremely distressing.

“Well, we have an orchestra here,” a Border Patrol agent jokes in Spanish, as children repeatedly scream for their “Mami” and “Papá.” ProPublica points out one resolute 6-year-old Salvadoran girl who tries to reason with the adults in the room, repeating her aunt’s phone number over and over.

Then a distraught but determined 6-year-old Salvadoran girl pleads repeatedly for someone to call her aunt. Just one call, she begs anyone who will listen. She says she’s memorized the phone number, and at one point, rattles it off to a consular representative. “My mommy says that I’ll go with my aunt,” she whimpers, “and that she’ll come to pick me up there as quickly as possible.”


At the end of the audio, a consular official offers to call the girl’s aunt. ProPublica dialed the number she recited in the audio, and spoke with the aunt about the call.

“It was the hardest moment in my life,” she said. “Imagine getting a call from your 6-year-old niece. She’s crying and begging me to go get her. She says, ‘I promise I’ll behave, but please get me out of here. I’m all alone.’”


There aren’t really words left for this—excruciating, heart-wrenching, gutting, heartbreaking; it’s all of those things, and we’ve already used them all. As it turns out, the adjectives stop working when your country starts systematically torturing kindergartners.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.



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