Although Seattle is some 1,500 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the debate over family separations hit closer to home for the Evergreen State after dozens of undocumented immigrants were transferred last week to the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Nearly all of those migrants — 174 out of 206 — were women, said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who spent about three hours Saturday morning meeting with the recently moved detainees at the SeaTac facility.
Most of them were from Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, she said, but there were also people from as far away as Eritrea. Many spoke of fleeing threats of rape, gang violence and political persecution, Jayapal said.
The women were in three separate concrete pods when she visited, and Jayapal said she and an interpreter first asked them to respond to questions by raising their hands. She asked how many were mothers who had been forcibly separated from their children: More than half of the women raised their hands. Some said that their children had been as young as 12 months — and many no longer knew where their children were being held.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking. And I’ve been doing immigration-rights work for almost two decades. I am not new to these stories,” Jayapal told The Washington Post on Sunday. “I will tell you there was not a dry eye in the house. … Some of them heard their children screaming for them in the next room. Not a single one of them had been allowed to say goodbye or explain to them what was happening.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed Thursday it was temporarily moving 1,600 detainees into federal prisons “due to the current surge in illegal border crossings and implementation of the U.S. Department of Justice’s zero-tolerance policy.” Previously, ICE has held detainees in county jails or in privately contracted facilities.
Jayapal said detainees relayed disturbing accounts of being held at Border Patrol facilities in “inhumane fenced cages” (referred to as the “dog pound”) or in the “ice box,” so nicknamed for the facilities’ cold temperatures and lack of blankets or sleeping mats. She also said many women spoke of being deprived of clean water and experiencing verbal abuse while in Border Patrol custody.
“Just the abuse that they endured, being called filthy and stinky and being mocked for crying,” Jayapal told The Post. “One woman said ‘I want to be with my children’ and the Border Patrol agent said: ‘You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here. You won’t have a family anymore.’ ”
The Department of Homeland Security disputes that detainees are held in “cages,” pointing to a Washington Post Fact Checker article that characterizes them as “chain-link fence enclosures” or “barriers,” as a Trump administration official referred to them.
On Saturday afternoon, Jayapal issued a withering statement describing her visit — “The mothers could not stop crying when they spoke about their children,” she wrote — and called for the Trump administration to reunite the detained and separated families.
“We have always had problems with the criminalization of immigrants,” Jayapal said in a video posted to her social media accounts Saturday. “But this is a new low, to take folks who are asylum seekers and throw them into a facility, not provide them with any access to basic human rights and, worst of all, to separate mothers from their children.”
On Saturday, Jayapal and others gathered in front of the detention center to denounce the practice of separating children that had produced the “heartbreaking” stories they said they had heard inside. They spoke over the din of protesters demanding that arriving migrants should be allowed by law to seek asylum.
“We’ve gathered here to say one central message: Cruelty to children should not be part of American policy,” Gov. Jay Inslee (D) told the crowd. “Intentional infliction of injury to children is below the standards of America. In America, the willful infliction of trauma against children is not acceptable. America is better than this. Inhumane, callous indifference and willful injury to children must stop.”
In recent weeks, outrage over the treatment of children taken into U.S. custody at the southwestern border has reached a fever pitch. President Trump has falsely blamed Democrats for the “horrible law” that is causing family separations, but in reality, no such law exists. His administration, however, announced a “zero tolerance” policy in early May under which the Justice Department has tried to prosecute every person who crosses the southwestern border illegally, even if some of them could or should be treated as asylum seekers, as the American Civil Liberties Union has argued.
Speaking to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the policy and its result: children being taken from their parents at the border.
“If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” Sessions told Hewitt. “We’ve got to get this message out. You’re not given immunity.”
On Saturday, Washington state’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, who was also at the rally, did not mince words when reacting to the policy. He explained that he was the father of 10-year-old twins.
“It’s outrageous,” Ferguson told the crowd. “Frankly, I’m not sure how Attorney General Sessions sleeps at night with a policy like this.”
Ferguson said Washington state officials were looking into whether they had grounds to sue the federal government to halt the family separations. Last Thursday, he and Inslee sent a letter to several top immigration officials — including acting U.S. attorney Annette Hayes — demanding answers to questions about the women seeking asylum who were being transferred to the detention center in SeaTac.
“Where are their children and who is caring for them?” the letter asked. “Why are these women being held in prison while their asylum claims are resolved?”
On Saturday, Inslee told the crowd that separating families was “un-American,” and that the infliction of trauma on immigrant children was intentional and not an accident.
“Today we are here not just to protect children but to protect our basic character as Americans,” Inslee said. “Any parent, any grandparent — anyone with a drop of blood in their heart — can understand the anxiety and the fear and the trauma caused by dislocation from your parents, particularly those children who have frequently had to suffer violence that is the very reason for their seeking amnesty.”
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article said the Trump administration had a policy of separating immigrant families at the border. The Department of Homeland Security said it does not have an explicit policy to separate families but that it is, however, “increasing referrals of illegal border crossers from DHS to [the Justice Department] for prosecution.” That has resulted in an increase in families being separated at the border as parents are detained. This article has been updated.