In the week since Senator Jeff Merkley made news when he was turned away from a child-immigrant-detention center in Brownsville, Texas, mainstream news outlets have begun covering the abomination at the border. There have been numerous stories about parents, many seeking asylum and escaping violence, having their children ripped away from them by US authorities, who then send those kids far and wide, often where their parents can’t find them. Maybe the worst story came from The Washington Post on Friday: Honduran asylum seeker Marco Antonio Muñoz lost his son at the McAllen, Texas, processing center—and then killed himself while in US custody.
Only one member of Congress has been able to talk to the mothers who have had their children taken from them: Washington state Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who got into a federal Bureau of Prisons facility Saturday near Seattle to meet with roughly 170 immigrant women held there. More than a third had lost their children during their migration, either when they were detained by US officials at the southern border or when they turned themselves in seeking asylum. Some of the women she met had lost children but were not from Latin America; because she only had a Spanish-English translator, she couldn’t talk to them, Jayapal told me.
The first-term congresswoman knows the US immigration system and its abuses very well. She came to the United States from India at 16 to study at Georgetown. After 9/11, she founded an organization to promote immigrant rights. And in 2014, running for Washington State Senate as a Democrat, she joined a hunger strike to protest President Obama’s deportation policies. While she still argues that Obama made mistakes on immigration, she makes clear that the Trump policy of family separation has no parallel in recent American history.
For one thing, she notes, asylum seekers have always been able to make their case for having a “credible fear” of facing violence in their home countries, before facing penalties for crossing the border. “There isn’t precedent for asylum seekers being criminally prosecuted at the border before they’ve had a ‘credible fear’ hearing,” Jayapal told me. Also, she said, these parents seeking asylum with their children are being processed in large group proceedings called “Operation Streamline,” designed to prosecute violent criminals. How could anyone make a case that they face violence in their home country in such a system?
I spoke with Representative Jayapal on Sunday evening; our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Joan Walsh: We think of this as a crisis on our southern border—but you found these women in a detention center near Seattle. What’s going on?
Pramila Jayapal: They came from the southern border. The majority are from Texas, those exact same checkpoints that have been written about before. But because there’s no place to keep them there, they’re being transferred around the country. Interestingly, we do have an immigration detention center in Tacoma, but that’s full because Trump has ramped up detention so dramatically—most of those centers are full now. So these women were transferred to a Bureau of Prisons federal facility that is used to keep everyone from pretrial detainees to the highest-level federal criminals in top security. It’s owned and operated by the federal government. It’s not contracted out. It’s all unionized employees—and that is why these women said this is the first place they felt treated like a human being. There are standards at these government-run facilities.