Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Director of “Split at the Root” at SXSW.

In looking over the documentaries that were part of SXSW 2022 I was looking forward to “Split at the Root,” directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, the story of the separation of mothers from their children as a result of the 2018 Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy at our southern border. It turned out to be extremely long (100 minutes) and mainly a talking head approach featuring the women held hostage in the detention cells at the border. Yeni Rodriguez speaks Spanish and there are English subtitles, but, honestly, the documentary seemed as though it were 3 hours long. Judicious editing could have made this a much better work. I’d recommend watching Dan Parkland’s “Unhinged” as a good example of how to edit a documentary.

Yeni Gonzalez is a good spokesperson for the cause. She memorized all the names, phone numbers and addresses of other female detainees  at the Eloy, Arizona, La Palma Correctional Center so that the U.S. group could contact them to try to help them. Another female detainee is Rosayra Pablo Cruz who sold her house in Guatemala in order to get the money to try to bring herself and two of her four children to the United States.  They began the arduous journey by truck from Guatemala to the Mexican border and were nearly kidnapped while en route. Also, according to the documentary, three years had passed and she had not seen her daughters, left home in Guatemala, in that time.

On 6/14/2018 six hundred children were removed from their parents’ custody and put into “the ice box,” as the detainees called the wire detention cages, because of the Zero Tolerance Policy. Rosayra said, “I wanted to come to the U.S. to have a better life, not to be separated from my children.” After days, a $12,000 bond was required to release Rosayra, (who, of course, did not have $12,000). It was three months before Rosayra saw her two sons again and it has been three years since she has seen her daughters. In her deepest despair a Biblical verse came to her (Matthew 6/4/30):  “If your Father provides for the birds, how much more will He provide for you?”

“Split at the Root” chronicles the tragedy of families separated at the border during the Trump administration.

A group of women who thought the Zero Tolerance Policy was unconscionable began organizing informally to try to help the women incarcerated in the cages at the border. They called themselves Immigrant Families Together and began gathering money online through GoFundMe campaigns to bond out the women. For Yeni Gonzalez’s $7,500 bond, the money was gathered within 12 hours, but the question was how to get her from Arizona to New York City. It ended up being necessary to do so via caravan, with the American women calling the Zero Tolerance Policy “an unspeakable shame.” The word from Rosayra and Yeni, “Fight, because with the help of these women you will succeed.”

By July 4th three women at a time were being bonded out. By the end of July, 2019, a federal judge ordered the border officials to stop separating families.  Mass releases led to chaotic scenes. Thirty-seven children were left stranded in vans for 11 to 39 hours because of the poor administration of the government’s policies.  A child with a broken femur was put into the cage and given only an aspirin for pain. One detainee, Irmi, Yeni’s roommate while in detention,  was diagnosed with 4th stage cancer of the esophagus. She also had tumors In her stomach, but she was unable to get any medical treatment while in custody and, consequently, died soon after being released. A mother who had a C-section was placed back into the caged area, sleeping on hard concrete with her newborn baby, for 3 days.

Of 2,551 children separated from their parents, as of July, 2018, 517 remain separated from their parents, despite the July, 2018, ruling to stop separating families. Asylum hearings need to be scheduled to remain in the U.S. The asylum acceptance rate is normally between 40% to 97%. In 2020 the number of children listed as being separated from their parents was listed as 4,368.

The end statistic listed in the documentary is that 2,127 kids still have not been reunited with their parents. One hundred and twenty-four bonds have been paid by the organization, which is a non-profit, staffed by volunteer women.

Despite the failure to make this documentary into the good documentary it could have been, the information contained in it is important to share with the American public.  I, like most American mothers, am appalled at the Zero Tolerance Policy of the Trump Administration and how it affected these immigrant women. The Trump Administration’s incompetence in not even keeping records of the families they separated, in some cases forever, is unconscionable. (Even the Nazis kept good records, at least).

The Trump Administration’s misdeeds of this sort are akin to the early days of our nation when the U.S. government sold the Indians down the stream. The misdeeds of the Trump Administration will forever be a black mark in American history, and we haven’t even revealed all of his crimes against humanity yet.