In a press conference outside the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, Washington, Congress member Pramila Jayapal led a group of lawmakers and advocates condemning the Trump administration’s cruel policy tearing kids from the arms of migrant parents at the U.S./Mexico border, saying that “every asylum-seeker should be immediately released, reunited with their children and connected to legal services. Anything less is cruel and barbaric.”
Earlier, Rep. Jayapal had met with a group of detainees for about three hours, confirming that of the more than 200 immigrants imprisoned there, 174 are women, “almost all of whom are asylum seekers.” They told Rep. Jayapal that they were humiliated and abused by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents after their initial arrests, telling her that they were called “’filthy’ and ‘stinky,’ and told them that their ‘families would not exist anymore’ and that they would ‘never see their children again’”:
“What I heard from the women today being held at the detention center was heartbreaking. They are there only because of the Trump administration’s cruel new ‘zero tolerance’ policies of family separation. They spoke of fleeing threats of rape, gang violence and political persecution. They spoke of their children who have been killed by gangs and their fear of being raped. The mothers could not stop crying when they spoke about their children – young girls and boys who were taken from them with no chance to say goodbye and no plan for reunification.”
Seeking asylum at a U.S. port of entry is a legal act, despite claims otherwise. Yet the Trump administration is punishing parents in order to scare off other vulnerable families, and in the most unimaginably cruel way possible. “Over a third of the women were mothers who had been forcibly separated from their children, who range in age from 1-year-old to teenagers,” Rep. Jayapal continued. “The vast majority of the mothers have not spoken with their children in weeks and they have no idea where they are. Most have been held in detention for more than two weeks and many for over a month.”
The administration has been tearing families apart with brutal efficiency, resulting in so many arrests—in Texas, “one federal public defender estimated there are more than 400 children being held in the McAllen area alone”—that detention facilities for migrant kids are nearing capacity and ICE is transferring 1,600 immigrants to federal prisons to five federal prisons in California, Oregon, Texas, and Washington:
Under former President Barack Obama, many immigrants without serious criminal records were allowed to await their court dates while living in the United States. Others were housed in immigration detention facilities or local jails. ICE has used federal prisons in the past but not on this scale, sources said.
“This sudden mass transfer,” said Kevin Landy, a former ICE official under the Obama administration, “could result in serious problems … a large percent of ICE detainees have no criminal record and are more vulnerable in a prison setting.” In a show of the deplorable state of immigration detention facilities, women told Rep. Jayapal that “SeaTac is the first place they feel they’ve been treated as human beings—thanks to the standards in place at government-owned and operated facilities, rather than the privately contracted facilities of DHS”:
“The women talked of being held in Border Patrol facilities that they termed the ‘dog pound,’ because of inhumane fenced cages, and the ‘ice box,’ because temperatures are frigid and detainees are given no blankets or mats. They also spoke of lack of access to food and water … ”
Yes, the women want freedom and a chance to live in safety here, but they also need their children. Rep. Jayapal told The Washington Post that in three different “pods” in the prison, more than half of the women raised their hands when she asked, through an interpreter, how many had been torn from their kids by immigration officials. “It was absolutely heartbreaking,” she said. “And I’ve been doing immigration-rights work for almost two decades. I am not new to these stories.”
“I call on the Trump administration to release all of these individuals immediately, to give them access to attorneys to quickly process their asylum claims, and for them to be immediately reunited with their children,” Rep. Jayapal said. She is also leading a group of more than 100 lawmakers who are trying to starve the deportation beast, ”urging the Subcommittee on Homeland Security on Appropriations to restrict the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to separate families at the border,” according to a press release. Jayapal, along with U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, has authored legislation halting new ICE facilities and imposing strict oversight on existing ones.
“It is outrageous that Department of Homeland Security is violating human rights and our international legal obligations under human rights law to swiftly and humanely process asylum seekers,” she continued. “I will also continue to push to defund ICE, to completely reform the immigration detention system and end mass prosecutions by the Department of Justice, and defund any Department of Homeland Security programs that break up families.”