The Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, where immigration lawyers say asylum seekers are being held.
The Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, where immigration lawyers say asylum seekers are being held. FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS

Three immigrant mothers separated from their children at the southern border and transferred to prisons in Washington State are suing the federal government.

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In a complaint filed Monday by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), the legal advocacy group says the government has "no legitimate purpose" for separating immigrant families. The group argues the separations violate asylum laws and immigrants' due process rights by separating children from their parents without justification or hearings.

NWIRP also argues the government has a "practice of prolonging" family separations by failing to provide timely credible fear interviews to immigrants seeking asylum. (Proving a "credible fear" of persecution is necessary to begin immigration court proceedings.)

"There are no allegations that the parents are unfit or abusing their children in any way, yet the government has forcibly separated them from their children and detained the children, generally thousands of miles away," the complaint says.

Under a "zero-tolerance" immigration policy, the Trump Administration has separated more than 2,300 immigrant children from their parents. In recent months, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began transferring immigrants to federal prisons, including the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac.

More than 200 immigrants, including some men and women separated from their families, were transferred to SeaTac, according to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who has visited the detainees. Some have now been transferred to the Northwest Detention Center, a privately run immigration prison in Tacoma.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to stop family separations, but it remains unclear how those families already separated will be reunited.

In the case filed Monday, NWIRP is representing three women—Ibis Guzman, Blanca Orantes, and Yolany Padilla—who came to the United States fleeing violence and seeking asylum. Federal immigration authorities separated the women from their children and moved them to Washington in May. The case seeks class action status to represent other immigrant parents now being held in Washington State.

The complaint names U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement as well as the leaders of those agencies including DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and ICE's Seattle field director Marc J. Moore. (Asked for comment, the agencies said they do not comment on pending litigation.)

"The government is detaining these parents on the other side of the country from their young children, who have been left to face an uncertain future frightened and alone," the complaint says.

Guzman, who is from Honduras, has a 5-year-old son. Orantes, who is from El Salvador, has an 8-year-old son. Padilla, who is from Honduras, has a 6-year-old son. None of them have been allowed to visit their children or given any timeframe for when they might see them again, according to the complaint. None of the women have been given credible fear interviews.

The complaint describes the women's anguish about being separated from the children and the varying levels of information they have received about their whereabouts.

According to the complaint, Guzman arrived in the United States in mid-May and was detained by Border Patrol agents. She and her son were held in a facility known as the "freezer" because of the temperatures in the room. An officer took Guzman's son and told her she would see him again in three days. But after three days, Guzman was transferred to another facility and officers told her they did not know where her son was.

Over the course of about two weeks in a facility in Laredo, Texas, Guzman received no information about her son and had no way of contacting him. Authorities then transferred her to SeaTac. After a week there, she learned her son was in a facility in San Antonio, Texas. Last week, Guzman was transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Guzman is now "extremely distraught and depressed because of the separation from her son, and cries when she speaks about him," the complaint says. "She worries he is also experiencing anxiety from the separation and may not be eating. In Honduras, she was a single mother and was with her son almost constantly, so being apart from him affects her profoundly."

Orantes and her son arrived at a Border Patrol station to request asylum on May 21, according to the complaint. Border Patrol officers apprehended them and Orantes was also held in a "freezer" while her son was held in another part of the station. An officer told her to say goodbye to her son. Her son "began crying and pleading Ms. Orantes not to leave," the complaint says. She has not seen her son since.

Three days after arriving, Orantes pled guilty to improper entry. In early June, she was transferred to the facility in SeaTac. Finally, on June 9, an ICE officer handed her a slip of paper stating that her son is in New York. On June 20, Orantes was able to speak to her son when she was transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Orantes "constantly feels hopeless and distraught, not knowing when she will see her son again," the complaint says. She worries about his "physical wellbeing and fears that he may be feeling abandoned and isolated."

"My son is all that I have," Orantes said in a statement issued by NWIRP. "Every day I am not with him, I feel that I am dying inside."

The third woman, Yolany Padilla, arrived in the U.S. on May 18. A Border Patrol agent arrested her as she was on her way to a port of entry, according to the complaint.

At the port of entry, an officer told her and other immigrants they would be separated from their children.

"The children old enough to understand the officer began to cry," the complaint says. Padilla's son clutched her shirt and said, "No, mommy, I don't want to go."

Padilla was later transferred to a "freezer" and saw her son once more when immigration officers took a photo of the two together. Three days later, she was transferred to a facility in Laredo, Texas, where officers took her son's birth certificate. About two weeks after that, she was transferred to SeaTac.

About a month into her detention, she received a piece of paper telling her that her son was in a facility in New York, according to the complaint. But because she did not have money, she was unable to call the facility immediately. The next day, she was able to call. "During the call, the boy mostly cried quietly," the complaint says.

According to the complaint, Padilla has never been separated from her son. "She cries when she speaks about him," the complaint says. "She worries about his emotional well-being and whether he is eating."

Separations like this can traumatize children, the complaint argues, causing cognitive and emotional damage.

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NWIRP cites a January letter from the American Association of Pediatrics stating that forced separation can cause children "psychological distress, anxiety, and depression" that can follow children "well after the immediate period of separation—even after the eventual reunification with a parent or other family."

The government has "ample ways" to keep families together, the complaint argues, including parole, bond, and supervised release. If the government continues to detain immigrant parents, it must detain them together and give them prompt credible fear interviews, the complaint argues.

NWIRP requests that a judge declare the separations unlawful, order the unification of immigrant parents held in Washington State with their children, provide prompt credible fear interviews, and prevent the government from deporting the parents until they are reunited with their children.