The Trump administration's latest crackdown on immigrants has reached the Northwest.
Seattle area immigration lawyers say the Department of Homeland Security may have transferred more than 100 people seeking asylum, including women who were separated from their children at the southern border, to the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. UPDATE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed to The Stranger that the agency is transferring detainees to federal prisons, including the facility in SeaTac. The agency has entered an agreement with the Bureau of Prisons to access 209 beds at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center. Asked whether that means 209 detainees have in fact been transferred to SeaTac, ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett said, "I don’t have any additional info on that." In total, ICE will now have access to more than 1,600 beds in five federal prisons across the country. Bennett said the move was due to "the current surge in illegal border crossings and implementation of the U.S. Department of Justice’s zero-tolerance policy." The agency intends to use the federal prisons as "a temporary measure until ICE can obtain additional long-term contracts for new detention facilities" or until a decline in border crossings, Bennett said.
Staff at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project are still working to understand the exact situations of the detainees in SeaTac. They have spoken to several asylum seekers at the facility and are currently working to talk with more, said NWIRP Legal Director Matt Adams. Based on what they know so far, they believe the inmates were first detained in Texas. There, NWIRP staff believe they were separated from their children, charged with unlawful entry (a federal misdemeanor), and sentenced to time served. Rather than being released to continue the asylum seeking process, they were recently transferred to SeaTac and remain detained.
The three women NWIRP staff have spoken to so far are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Their children are 15, 16, and 11.
The Trump administration has instituted a "zero tolerance" policy on families who enter the country illegally. That has resulted in parents being detained in federal prisons while their children are sent separately to shelters.
Simultaneously, the government has begun holding people seeking asylum from violence in their home countries in prison. That has drawn legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. The ACLU is also challenging the process of separating parents from their children.
Much of this crackdown has played out on the southern border. The asylum seekers at SeaTac are "the first group we’ve seen [in the Seattle area] that have been affected by the administration's new policy," Adams said. A representative for the Federal Detention Center did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
NWIRP staff have spoken with three women at the facility, each of whom described being separated from their children in Texas and then transferred to SeaTac. The women also shared what they know about other detainees, Adams said. The women said they were part of a group of 60 women. NWIRP believes there is a second group of 60 people being held in another part of the detention center. NWIRP staff planned to meet with nine more detainees today, Adams said.
"The women we talked to didn’t even know where their children were," Adams said. "That is what is brand new: this naked display of power by the government, using the misery of separating families in order to deter other asylum seekers from trying to come to the United States."
Adams said it is “very unusual” that the asylum seekers were transferred to SeaTac instead of to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. That also makes it more difficult to reach them and learn about their conditions. NWIRP does not have the same presence at the SeaTac facility as it does at the 1,500-bed Tacoma detention center, which holds immigrants facing deportation. There, NWIRP regularly conducts legal trainings and works with immigrants on their cases. The organization first learned of the women at the facility in SeaTac through a lawyer who worked on their cases in Texas.
"They're kind of hidden away there," Adams said. "They were not getting access to the services that we provide."
Adams said NWIRP may release more information about the detainees in coming days after learning more.