Alison Ximena Madrid did not speak a word of English when she came to the United States seven months ago.
But her woeful plea in Spanish to immigration officials -- captured in an audio recording -- transcended language barriers. The recording of her and other children crying inside a detention center revealed the human toll of the Trump administration's family separation policy.
Now, the 7-year-old Salvadoran migrant has a temporary home in Houston, where she and her mother live with relatives in a converted garage. She's learning English and she's eager to share her affection for her new home even though it's unclear how much longer she'll be able to stay.
"Why I love America? I love my school. I love my church. I love to smile. I love and believe in the American dream," she said. "Happy new year, America!"
Alison and her mother, Cindy Madrid, are preparing for their first asylum hearing as they settle into their new life.
Madrid fled El Salvador with her only child to protect the little girl from gang violence, lawyer Thelma Garcia said. If the mother loses her bid for asylum and is sent back to El Salvador, they will likely face the same threats, Garcia said.
"They had very serious problems with gang violence. They had no protection by the police. We're not expecting anything good if she is returned back home."
Alison appears to understand the threat, too. "The gangs," she says, "they wanted to steal me."
And yet Garcia acknowledges that their request for asylum is far from guaranteed: "There's a good chance that it might not be granted," she said.
Alison and her mother were separated at the US-Mexico border in June under the administration's zero tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings. The policy was later reversed after international outcry.
Alison was taken to a facility in Arizona with other children separated from their parents. Their voices were captured in an audio recording obtained and published by ProPublica.
Cries of "Mami" and "Papa" are heard in the recording, which was widely shared online, compounding criticism of the family separation policy. An adult on the recording compares their cries to an orchestra.
In the recording, Alison pleads with officers to call her aunt, reciting the number her mother said she memorized during the 17-day journey from El Salvador to the US border.
"Mommy says I'll go with my aunt and that she'll come to pick me up as quickly as possible," she said.
Madrid said she was not able to talk to Alison for nine days, and for weeks she was in the dark about when they'd be together again. There were times she thought that might never happen, Garcia said.
They were reunited in Houston this summer and started settling into their new normal.
Madrid is doing her best to learn English at her church. She cannot legally get a job at this stage of the asylum process. But she said she would readily take any available job as long as she can do it with dignity.
Alison attends school in Houston. The new setting frightened her at first, she said. Now, she has friends and is learning English.
One thing she knows for sure, she said, is that she does not want to return to El Salvador.
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