Asylum-seeking immigrant mothers separated from children at border now held in SeaTac federal prison

SEATAC, Wash. – What some are calling a humanitarian crisis has reached our doorstep.

Thousands of immigrants seeking asylum are being detained in federal prisons across the country, including at the federal detention center in Seatac.

The immigrants are awaiting  hearings to see if they can stay in the U.S. or if they will be deported.  But while they wait, families are being separated.

Prior to 2012, during the Obama administration, asylum-seekers were released on their own recognizance in the U.S. while they awaited hearings on their applications. They were then supposed to go through a court proceeding to see if they would be granted asylum and allowed to stay in the U.S.

The Trump administration has created new, unprecedented practices.  If you cross the border illegally and try to seek asylum, you will be prosecuted as a criminal and possibly detained in a federal prison like the one in SeaTac.  Right now, immigrant rights advocates say we have up to 209 asylum-seeking immigrants imprisoned in the facility in SeaTac. Those seeking asylum are largely from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

“Highest levels of homicide, tremendous levels of sexual assault, gang violence,” said Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Executive Director Jorge Baron.

Because many ports of entry are ove-crowded or not allowing new applications, some immigrants are taking matters into their own hands.

“A lot of people are crossing the border just to be able to turn themselves in to Border Patrol,” said Baron.

Even if they turn themselves in immediately, the new standards say they’ve committed a federal misdemeanor of unlawful entry into the country.  Just recently,  Attorney General Jeff Sessions laid out a zero-tolerance policy.

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child may be separated from you, as required by law,” said Sessions.

But Baron argues that’s not how the law has ever been interpreted.

“They’re presenting themselves at the border asking for protection. We have a process that we recognize that, we’ve adopted into law. We have an asylum process,” said Baron.

He says just this weekend as many as 209 asylum-seekers were transported to the SeaTac federal detention center, including women separated from their children at the border.

“They were told OK, the mother goes over here and the daughter goes over here (in a separate place) without any warning, really, and they were separated,” said Baron.

Baron and other attorneys have met with some of the women at this prison.  For the first time, they’re speaking to lawyers and learning they’ll be detained indefinitely.

“The women were asking me yesterday, 'How long are we going to be here?' And I don’t have a good answer for that,” said Baron.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a statement explaining how the agency is handling the ramped-up enforcement efforts and change in policy, saying, “The use of BOP {Bureau of Prisons} facilities is intended to be a temporary measure until ICE can obtain additional long-term contracts for new detention facilities or until the surge in illegal border crossings subsides.”

“They want to do this to enact this cruel policy because they want to deter people from coming and seeking asylum,” said Baron.

Baron says besides the moral problems, he says taxpayers are paying for the detention, transportation and everything else associated with the ramped-up enforcement.

President Trump says the policy to separate families is really the fault of Democrats in the Republican-controlled Congress because they won’t help pass a new immigration bill that also includes funding for his border wall.