Separated migrant families on Trump's State of the Union: 'We do not deserve all the damage'
One mother who is to attend the speech Tuesday said of being forced to be away from her children, "I do not think I'm going to be able to overcome it."
Yeni Maricela Gonzalez Garcia with her children, from left, Lester, Deyuin and Jamelin, after they were reunited in New York on July 13, 2018. Gonzalez Garcia, from Guatemala, and her children were separated at an Arizona immigration facility.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file
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By Daniella Silva, Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff
Families seeking asylum in the United States who were separated by the Trump administration said that while they are honored to attend the State of the Union speech before Congress on Tuesday evening, seeing the president will remind them of their recent suffering.
"It's an honor to be able to attend," Yeni Gonzalez Garcia, a Guatemalan who was separated from her three children for two months, told NBC News in Spanish. "To see the president speak — because of what he did to me — I don't know, I feel resentment in my heart to see that person."
Gonzalez and her children, ages 6 to 11, will attend the speech as guests of Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.
President Donald Trump's address to Congress and the nation follows a five-week partial government shutdow, the longest in the nation's history, that resulted from his demand to pay for a wall along the nation's southern border with Mexico.
Democratic lawmakers have invited a variety of guests who, they say, humanize the issue of immigration and counteract the president's narrative of a crisis at the border.
Gonzalez was separated from her children last spring as part of the administration's "zero tolerance" policy against families crossing the border illegally. Her family said it was fleeing gang violence in its home country.
She said she is still traumatized by the separation and will never forget it.
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"I do not think I'm going to be able to overcome it," she said, adding that she prays that her children will be able to forget what they lived through.
Gonzalez said she sees Trump as a person "who does not have a heart," but she hopes God forgives him.
"I hope he puts his hand on his heart and recognizes in his conscience that we immigrants are not bad people deserving of hate," she said. "We are here for a better future."
"We do not deserve all the damage that happened," she said.
Espaillat said Gonzalez's children — Deyuin, Jamelin and Lester — were taken to a shelter for migrant children in New York City before an emotional reunion in July. The family is living in the city while its asylum case proceeds.
"I don’t think we will ever forget the hurt of a mother seen on TV crying or the children crying in the middle of the night for their mothers or fathers," he said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a leading critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, also invited a formerly separated Central American family as his guests.
Yakelin Garcia Contreras is celebrating her 12th birthday while in Washington for the State of the Union speech, far from the El Paso border where she was separated from her mother last May after arriving from Guatemala.
Yakelin and her mother, Albertina Contreras Teletor, were reunited after months.
In an interview hours before the president’s address to Congress, Yakelin said that if she could send one message to Trump on behalf of other separated children, it would be, “We are equal to everyone else."
Merkley’s well-appointed office in the nation's capital is a dramatic change in scenery for the mother and daughter, who described being kidnapped by a Mexican cartel and held for eight hours before they were able to cross into the U.S.
From there, Yakelin was moved to a shelter near Brownsville, Texas, more than 800 miles away from her mother who was incarcerated in Otero, Texas. Mother and daughter had no communication for more than a month, and Yakelin said she was worried her mother would be deported like the parents of the other children she was housed with.
Despite that, Contreras says, “in my heart, there is no hate or resentment” toward Trump.
Today, the mother and daughter live together in Nashville, where Yakelin is learning English in school as they await immigration hearings. Contreras fears for the safety of her two sons, 9 and 4, who did not make the journey from Guatemala.
She acknowledged the symbolism of her presence at the State of the Union.
“We are representing all the separated families,” Contreras said. “We are privileged enough to get to be here. We want to tell them we all experienced the same suffering, but in this life you can do anything.”
Daniella Silva is a reporter for NBC News, specializing in immigration and inclusion issues, as well as coverage of Latin America.
Julia Ainsley is a correspondent covering the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the NBC News Investigative Unit.