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Some moms too anguished to speak, attorneys for asylum seekers say

The federal prison at SeaTac where 177 women seeking asylum have been jailed. About half of those women were taken from their children at the border. The children were between 3 and 16 years.
Daniel Berman for KUOW
The federal prison at SeaTac where roughly 50 parents separated from their children were initially held.

Some moms held at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center were so distressed they couldn’t speak, according to attorneys who have volunteered to interview asylum seekers there. 

This causes a problem for the attorneys trying to get information from these women in order to file asylum claims, they said.

Jessica Goldman, a volunteer attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), described an interview with Maria, a Salvadoran woman who agreed to share her story with the media on the condition that only her first name be used.

“She was quiet and calm for the most part until we started discussing her son,” Goldman said. “Then she just started sobbing. I couldn’t even understand what she was saying. She is terrified.”

Maria came to the United States with her 9-year-old son to escape threats made by “bandia de MS,” Goldman said. Maria’s husband, who was targeted by the gang, went missing last year, she said.

Maria was able to speak to her son once by phone since being detained, but wasn’t sure where he was being held by federal officials. She is illiterate, Goldman added, and relies on other detained women in federal prison to read materials left by attorneys for her.

The mothers were given slips of paper with their children’s name, said Malou Chávez, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

But one woman she interviewed was given the wrong child.

“They showed her a picture and she said, ‘That's not my child,’” Chávez said. “When she saw that, she got scared.”

Attorneys also face unique barriers to help asylum seekers in federal prison as opposed to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where immigration detainees are typically held, said Luis Cortes, another volunteer attorney. Attorneys visiting clients in Tacoma can hand paperwork to the detainees, but inside federal prison, they must mail them materials.

Cortes added that while the staff at SeaTac have been as helpful and friendly as possible, he knows they’re understaffed and don’t have enough women guards to monitor the asylum seeking mothers who have been separated from their children. That causes delays in visitation, he said.

SeaTac’s public information officer was not able to be reached by phone. But Joe Velazquez, regional vice president for the Council of Prison Locals-33 for Western states, said that understaffing has remained a consistent problem. In several prisons across the West, he said, teachers and non-custodial staff in prison are being diverted from their jobs in order to monitor inmates.

“Recently, with this influx of detainees coming in, it's shed a lot of light on not having the available staff to have the job we need to do to do those programs,” he said.

But parents are being transferred out of the SeaTac Federal Detention Center to Tacoma’s immigration detention facility. As of this week, 30 of the roughly 50 parents initially detained at SeaTac have been transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Of the dozen women that he has interviewed, Cortes said that the most constant experience has been “severe desperation, wanting to know how their kids are.”

“There's one woman can't even really speak about her experience because she'll just break down and cry,” Cortes said. “It's difficult to get the story of what happened; she can't even get herself to talk about her daughter because it becomes overwhelming to her.”

“Sometimes she just sits there,” Cortes said.

Paraphrasing their clients, the attorneys also described mistreatment by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents when they were detained.

Two women interviewed said they were told by Border Patrol agents that they would never see their children again because they would be adopted into American families, said Syliva Miller, a NWIRP volunteer attorney.

Miller has interviewed three women who have been separated from their children at the border. Those women are now detained at SeaTac or Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center.

“All of them cried when I was doing intake,” Miller said. One woman seemed to be particularly depressed, she said. 

“She just seemed unable to deal with the detention itself, not knowing where her child was," Miller said. "Her child had been abused in the past, and at the border, she could see one of the officers towering over his son and yelling at him.”

Cortes described another interview with a detainee who said she was only fed water and crackers for four days at the border. Border officials, he said, refused to give her the crackers by hand and threw them on the floor instead.  

“Oh, you think you're gonna get a five-star treatment?’ saying things like that,” Cortes said. “That's what's going on with some of these parents’ minds thinking: ‘My kid is subject to this treatment too.’”

A Border Patrol spokesperson did not address the individual allegations described by the attorneys, but categorically denied mistreating asylum seekers.

The pressure of not knowing how their children are faring are has led some women to give up on their asylum claims in the hope that they will be reunited with their children sooner, Cortes said. While the Trump administration has retreated on its ‘zero tolerance’ policy separating families going forward, the government does not have a clear plan to reunite already-detained parents with more than 2,000 children separated from them since April.

Border Patrol spokesperson Roland Filiault said that parents would be placed into ICE custody “once the criminal prosecution phase is complete.” During deportation, he added, “families will be reunited and returned to their country of origin.”

Border Patrol did not respond to a question about when, exactly, those families could be reunited. 

Nevertheless, detained mothers facing uncertain futures are finding strength in one another, Chávez said.

It costs money to make phone calls, but the women she has interviewed have been sharing what little funds they have with one another.

“That sense of friendship, camaraderie, and being in this together despite the circumstances is very moving,” Chávez said. “It also shows the resiliency of the people who are there.”