Honduran asylum seeker Yolany Padilla, right, remains separated from her son.
Honduran asylum seeker Yolany Padilla, right, remains separated from her son. HG

Yolany Padilla knows a few things about her 6-year-old son. She knows he is in New York City. She knows he spends mornings in a day center and nights and weekends with a foster family about 20 minutes away (though she does not know anything about that family). She knows he received the small gift she sent him—a handheld video game and a strap to hold his glasses, which she knows always slip down his nose. And she knows he sounds unhappy every time they speak.

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“Last time we spoke, the call ended in tears,” Padilla said.

What Padilla does not know about her son is when she will see him again.

Padilla, 24, was one of 55 parents who arrived at the southern border seeking asylum only to be separated from their children and then transferred to Washington State. Nationally, about 3,000 children have been separated from their families. Padilla is believed to be the first parent released in Washington.

The separations came under the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, and the parents are receiving legal help from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. About 150 other asylum seekers were also transferred to Washington, according to NWIRP.

Since President Donald Trump signed an executive order to stop separating families detained along the southern border, the issue has faded some from headlines and the public consciousness. But NWIRP officials say Padilla’s story is a reminder that the effects of the policy are far from resolved.

“This concept that family separation is solved—it’s not,” said NWIRP executive director Jorge Barón. “She is here. She’s still separated from her child.”

***

Padilla and her son, Jelsin, crossed the southern border in mid-May after fleeing Honduras. During a news conference Wednesday, Padilla and her lawyers declined to share more about her reasons for fleeing because her asylum case is ongoing. She said she did not intend to return to Honduras.

Padilla did share details about her treatment since arriving at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas.

After being detained, Padilla said she was kept in a cold room known as an “icebox,” where a border protection agent told a group of immigrants, “just by simply dropping a bomb in your country—that is how we will end this immigration, by getting rid of everybody, by killing everybody.”

Padilla said her son was taken from her and she remained in the “icebox” eating bread and frozen ham for three days. Detainees drank water from the toilet tank and went days without showers, she said. She was then transferred to a similar facility in Laredo, Texas, before being moved again to Washington State.

Treatment in SeaTac was better, Padilla said, but she did not know until about a month into her detention where her son was.

“It’s abuse,” Padilla said. “What they’re doing is abuse. Nobody should be prohibited [from being] able to connect with their children.”

Padilla recounted similar experiences from her detainment in a class action lawsuit filed last month by NWIRP.

A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not comment on Padilla’s specific claims, but said in an email to The Stranger, “the allegations you are relaying do not fall within what we know to be common practice at our facility.” The spokesperson said detainees receive medical checks, immediate access to water and snacks, and regular meals and showers.

***

Today, Padilla is free from those detention conditions, but she remains stuck in a bureaucratic maze as she attempts to see her son again.

After about a month at the prison in SeaTac, Padilla was transferred to the Northwest Detention Center, a private immigration prison in Tacoma. After a credible fear hearing—the first necessary step to seek asylum—and an $8,000 bond, Padilla was released Friday afternoon. (NWIRP lawyers would not say who paid Padilla’s bond.)

Padilla is now staying in the home of a volunteer and can call her son each weekday when he is at the day center, where he is going to school.

“I told him I’m free now,” Padilla said. “He was very happy but he is starting to get restless because he expects me to go get him… He could have everything in the world right now—a million dollars—but he doesn’t have the most important thing in his life: his mother.”

Padilla’s attorney, Leta Sanchez, said the federal government is subjecting parents like Padilla to the process normally used to find homes for unaccompanied immigrant minors.

That process requires Padilla to prove she has the community support, housing, and financial resources necessary to care for her son, Sanchez said. Padilla has been required to provide fingerprints and complete a background check and has no idea how long she will wait.

“The relevant agencies are completely overwhelmed,” Sanchez said.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is overseeing care of unaccompanied children, has not yet returned a request for comment.

The federal government missed a deadline Tuesday to reunify children under 5 who had been separated from their parents at the border. A federal judge has ordered the government to reunite the remaining children older than 5 with their parents by July 26. In total, that group reportedly includes about 2,000 children.

NWIRP lawyers said Wednesday they did not know how exactly that ruling would affect Padilla or the other parents detained in Washington.

Immigrants, including asylum seekers, are regularly held in Washington State, including at the 1,500-bed Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. But the federal government’s crackdown this summer brought at least 206 asylum seekers from the border to Washington State. Legal advocates learned of their arrival from a local reporter.

Of the 206 people, 55 of them were parents like Padilla separated from their children at the border. NWIRP attorneys are working to get the detainees credible fear hearings so they can seek bond hearings and eventual release. Along with Padilla, one other mother has been released and three more parents were expected to be released Wednesday.

“It’s been enough,” Padilla said. “The punishment has been completed… It’s time to return our kids.”

Asked what the long-term effects the separation may have on her son, Padilla said only, “I don’t know.”

According to a letter cited in NWIRP’s class action suit, the American Association of Pediatrics has said forced separation can cause children "psychological distress, anxiety, and depression." Those conditions can follow them "well after the immediate period of separation," the letter said, and even after they’ve been reunified with their parents.