This 11-year-old U.S. citizen has been separated from her asylum-seeking mom for 222 days.

11-year-old Yeisvi Carrillo, an American citizen, has been in foster care for more than 220 days after being forcibly separated from her mother at the border.

Vilma Carrillo and her husband were living in Georgia in 2006 when Vilma gave birth to their daughter, Yeisvi. They lived there for about a year as undocumented farm workers in onion fields and warehouses before returning to their home country of Guatemala to care for Carrillo’s ailing mother in 2007.

A few years later, Carrillo’s husband grew violent. Carrillo was brutally abused, burned and beaten with increasing intensity, to the point that Yeisvi worried that her dad might kill her mom. That’s when Carrillo decided to return to the U.S. with her daughter and seek asylum.


In an interview with Upworthy, Shana Tabak, Executive Director of the Tahirih Justice Center in Atlanta, the legal non-profit who is representing Carrillo in immigration court, describes Carrillo's abuse as "severe." “Her four front teeth were punched out by her abuser,” Tabak says. “She was pulled by her hair, naked, wearing her underwear. Years of this. She finally decided that she feared too much for her life to stay.”

In May, Vilma and Yeisvi crossed the border in Arizona and requested asylum. That’s when they were forcibly separated.

Within 15 minutes of being held, border officials recognized that the 11-year-old Yeisvi was a U.S. citizen. They called in officials from the state of Arizona and told them that they couldn’t detain the girl because of her citizen status.

“They had Vilma sign papers relinquishing her custody of her daughter for 90 days,” says Tabak.  “Vilma did not understand what she was signing because she does not read or write in any language. She’s an indigenous Mam speaker, who at the time spoke very little Spanish and no English.”

Then her daughter was torn from her, Tabak says. “She was crying and screaming so much that Vilma fainted and lost consciousness, and when she woke up her daughter was gone.” Yeisvi was put into foster care and Vilma was transferred to Irwin Detention Center in Atlanta.

It’s now been more than six months since the mother and daughter have seen one another.

In a cruel twist, Carrillo was flown to Texas for reunification in July, when the government was required to reunite separated families. Then she was told, “No, not you.”

As if being separated from your child by half a continent isn’t painful enough, Carrillo briefly thought that she and Yeisvi were going to be reunited when a judge ruled that families who had been subject to the government’s policy of detaining children separately from their parents must be reunited by July 26, 2018.

“In advance of the July deadline the authorities thought that she was qualified for reunification,” says Tabak. “So she and nine of her friends here from the Irwin Detention Center were taken to Texas to be reunited with their daughters. One by one, she watched them all be reunified. She kept asking, 'What about me? What about my daughter?' and they said, 'No, not you,' and then they sent her back here.”

Carrillo went to court without an attorney, without an interpreter who could understand her, and without the asylum documents that had been prepared for her by an attorney. Those documents were in a backpack when she was transferred back to Georgia from Texas, and she wasn’t allowed access to that backpack in time for her hearing. She said, on the record, “I don’t understand what’s happening and I don’t have my documents,” but the judge denied her asylum petition. That denial has been appealed by Tahirih Justice Center lawyers.

Carrillo’s lawyers also submitted a request for humanitarian parole for her so she could be released and reunited with her daughter, says Tabak. But the ICE director in the Atlanta field office refused.

Tabak explains that the federal government has the discretion to release her during the appeals process; they're simply choosing not to.

"Vilma has no criminal history, so she is not subject to mandatory detention. So under the law, Vilma is being held at the discretion of the federal government. That’s why we submitted a request for humanitarian parole. That’s why we applied for bond. Because these are decision points where the federal government, if it were doing its job properly, would evaluate the evidence and make a decision as to whether or not she should stay, and provide an individualized determination of—if they decided to hold her—why they will hold her. But in this case, we are getting no explanation as to why they are holding her. They’re just holding her.”

Carrillo's lawyers have filed a habeas petition challenging the constitutionality of her detention.

Carrillo could be deported and her daughter could be made to stay in the U.S., basically forcing permanent family separation on both an asylum-seeking mother and an American citizen.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration adopted a new policy that says domestic violence generally can’t be used as grounds for asylum, which makes Carrillo’s case harder to appeal. She’s also in Atlanta, Georgia, which Tabak says is the worst place in the United States to be an undocumented immigrant.

“It’s known as an ‘asylum free’ zone,” Tabak says. “Across the country, any immigrant who finds themselves in court and applies for asylum has about a 43% chance of getting asylum. In Atlanta, they have a 2% chance. So this is a terrible place to be applying for asylum.”

Ironically, although the domestic violence Carrillo and her daughter fled from isn't eligible grounds for asylum, that same violence could result in the unthinkable—a permanent separation in which Carrillo could lose custody of her daughter. The courts could potentially decide that it's too unsafe to send Yeisvi—an American citizen—back to Guatemala, meaning she would have to stay in the U.S. in foster care.

There are many possible outcomes to this case. The state of Arizona, where Yeisvi is living, must do what's in the best interest of the child, but there's no way for Yeisvi to legally stay with her mother while she's in detention. As of now, Carrillo is in jeopardy of losing her parental rights completely, solely because ICE is choosing to keep her detained.

Temporary separation following domestic violence and a harrowing journey is traumatic enough. Taking an 11-year-old's mother away from her permanently when she's already been through so much would be outright cruel.

Carrillo's story is gaining national attention and prompting celebrity advocacy.

Penn Badgley, an actor and musician best known for his roles on CW's "Gossip Girl" and the Lifetime-turned-Netflix show "You," has taken an active role in Tahirih Justice Center's advocacy work. He accompanied Tabak on a visit to Carrillo at the Irwin Detention Center on December 14.

"I expressly do not believe that every problem is made better by adding a celebrity," Badgley told Upworthy in an interview. He does, however, believe we all need to use our voices to speak up for justice and to elevate the voices of those who are being harmed by our laws and policies. He says:

“There are a lot of really hard-working and intelligent people who are hitting the books to figure out, okay, where is the legal justification for this treatment of other human beings? They’re seeking asylum. It stands to be repeated, that is not a crime. If anything, they’re victims of crime before they come here. They’re seeking safety. They’re seeking refuge. These are fundamental principles this country is supposed to have been founded on...Our country claims to be a beacon of hope and light and justice in the world, and yet we have many stains on our historical record. These are deep, blood-red stains. If we want to be Americans, which ones do we want to be?"

Badgley says that instead of devolving into talking points, there are some fundamental questions that we as Americans need to be asking ourselves:

"What do these borders mean? What do they mean if they inflict criminal abuse upon people fleeing criminal abuse? If reaching our borders is bringing the same kind of harm or abuse to human beings fleeing abuse, what are we doing? What do these borders mean? What are we trying to protect? If we’re trying to protect our integrity as a nation, we actually might be doing a great job of undermining our integrity."

Badgley has used his social media accounts to help advocate for Vilma Carrillo and her daughter, sharing a petition to tell ICE to release Carrillo and reunite her with Yeisvi.

Penn Badgley/Instagram

Carrillo's story is unique, but it highlights problematic policies and attitudes toward immigration and asylum.

Tabak says she's seen a shift during her career in immigration and human rights law, which has resulted in some unprecedented actions on behalf of the U.S. government.

“The federal government has been trying to erect a border wall to prevent people from seeking the asylum that they are entitled to under the law,” says Tabak. “Short of getting the permission from Congress to erect a physical wall, the government is doing everything it can to erect a legal wall for clients who are trying to access protection under the law.”

Tabak also points out some of the issues that make the asylum process harder for people like Vilma Carrillo:

“The issues that we’ve seen for a long time in Georgia are the issues that are now relevant across the country. We’re seeing failures of due process, like in Vilma’s case. We’re seeing judges with pronounced and overt bias against our clients. We’re seeing disregard for expert testimony on mental health and trauma. And those are phenomena that have existed in the Atlanta courts for many many years and currently we’re seeing that spread across the country. In addition, I think that some of the choices that the current federal government has taken are simply unprecedented. The choice to separate parents from children as a deterrent, it was contemplated under previous governments, but it was never carried out. That simply is unprecedented. It is in clear violation of international law."

Advocates for Carrillo hope to get a hearing to reunite Vilma and Yeisvi by Yeisvi's 12th birthday on December 20. Here are ways everyone can help:

Join those calling for Vilma and Yeisvi's reunification by signing and sharing this Change.org petition. Make a donation to support the work of Tahirih Justice Center or other non-profits that help represent immigrant families in court. And finally, use your civic voice to remind the U.S. government that asylum is a legal human right and that #familiesbelongtogether.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."