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.
JW: So normally they’re held in private facilities, with lower standards?
PJ: Yes, they’re contracted out—both CBP and ICE facilities, so many of them are contracted out to for-profit and private contractors.
JW: How did you wind up getting in so quickly? Is it because of that?
PJ: Well, that is interesting, I do think it was easier because it’s a federal Bureau of Prisons facility. We called the warden on Friday. We were on the phone with the BOP folks, with ICE nationally and locally, but because it’s a BOP facility it was easier to get access. ICE often requires two weeks advance notice. The BOP essentially let us in immediately. We went in at 10 am on Saturday morning.
JW: So I know you heard a lot of horrible stories there. It’s almost impossible for the media to get cameras down there, so I don’t think we’re hearing or seeing a lot of what’s going on. Can you share some of what you saw?
PJ: I met with 174 women, in three different pods. I went from one pod to the next. The vast majority were Spanish speaking, but there was a group of Chinese speakers and some others. We had a Spanish interpreter. The women would all answer at once sometimes. I did a lot of “raise your hand” questions. “How many are asylum seekers?” The majority lifted up their hands.
Thirty to 40 percent of these women came with children who had been forcibly taken away from them. None got a chance to say goodbye to their children—they were forcibly taken away. One said she was deceived, because they were in detention together. Then the CBP officers told her she was going out to get her photograph taken. When she came back, she was put in a different room, and she never got to see the child again. Some of them said they could hear their children screaming for them in the next room. The children ranged anywhere from one to teenagers.
One of the mothers told me DHS officers threatened to take away her 6-year-old daughter, right in front of them, and her daughter started screaming. She was separated from her daughter on the second day of custody and hasn’t had contact in over a week. But in some ways, she was one of the lucky ones, because her daughter was placed with family in Los Angeles.
Another woman came from Guatemala with her children, 8 and 12. Her husband was in prison for raping a 12-year-old child, and he was coming out. She was afraid her children would be raped either by him or some of his fellow gang members. She had been separated from her two children, she didn’t know where they were.
Another woman came fleeing gang violence, she had a 14-year-old child killed nine months ago. Another child in a wheelchair, paralyzed in a gang shooting. So she came with her third child, just to get one of them to safety.
Another woman came with her two sons, 11 and 16—for whatever reason, her older son is going to be reunited with his father in Virginia, but the younger son is staying in custody, which is crazy.
JW: And she doesn’t know why.
PJ: The majority of the moms—but not all—had only just [the day before] been given a slip by ICE agents that had their names, the name of their children, and the facility their children were held in. But one mom said, “These are not my children.” They’re listed on the slip, but they’re not her children. We collected all the slips we could so we could start to find out where these children were and have the lawyers help get in touch with them.
JW: I know you saw women of different ethnicities, there were some Chinese speakers there, but were any of the other women mothers whose children had been taken away?
PJ: Yes, they were, but we unfortunately only had a BOP interpreter who spoke Spanish—who did a phenomenal job, for three hours straight. So we didn’t have speakers in the other languages. We could see they wanted to tell us things. My staffer, who is of Chinese origin, but doesn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, asked if they could write something on a piece of paper so she could take it home to her dad to translate. They wouldn’t let them.
JW: So you said a lot of these women are asylum seekers, yet they’re being seen in groups of 50 to 100. How do you make the case for asylum if you’re being seen in a large group?
PJ: This is a huge problem. This is part of Operation Streamline, which I have written letters and done other things to try to stop. It was set up for mass prosecutions of quote “the really bad guys,” to get that process moving, because we have so few immigration judges. But they’re now using Operation Streamline for asylum seekers, and these women said anywhere from 75 to 100 are being prosecuted all together; they have headphones but they’re not allowed to speak to the judge…
JW: Headphones so they can hear a translation of the proceedings–but not speak?
PJ: Yes, they’re not allowed to speak themselves. There’s only one argument made for all of them. There’s only one public defender for all of them. This is a huge problem. One thing also of concern is they are pleading guilty of the crime of crossing the border. Well, when you seek asylum, if you have a criminal record, you don’t qualify for asylum.
JW: Yes, I saw that in the Washington Post story, where parents were debating whether to say “culpable” or “no culpable.” There’s this notion that if they do plead guilty, they will at least be reunited with their kids faster, even if they’re maybe then sent back. But what is your understanding?
PJ: I don’t think that’s true. These women were all processed through, and they think that may be the case…
JW: That if they plead guilty they’ll be reunited with their kids?
PJ: Yes. But they’re being prosecuted in criminal courts, not immigration courts, so the immigration consequences of pleading guilty to a crime may not be clear to everybody. There isn’t really precedent for asylum seekers’ being criminally prosecuted at the border before they’ve had a “credible fear” hearing. You come seeking asylum. Seeking asylum is not illegal. So typically what would happen is somebody would come to the border seeking asylum, they would get a “credible fear” hearing, then they would be released, then they would come back.
JW: You and I have talked before about the problems with some of President Obama’s immigration policies. Can you help me distinguish what would not have happened under President Obama?
PJ: For the most part, President Obama did not try to rob asylum seekers of their “credible fear” hearings. He also never separated families at the border. He put them in family-detention centers, which we know…
JW: Which we know weren’t great…
PJ: Which we know weren’t great, but he tried to keep families together, for the most part. But the big difference is that the “zero tolerance” policy of the Trump administration has been across the board. There really is no difference between immigrants. So an immigrant who could be a threat to national security or to safety… I mean, we had problems with [the way] President Obama treated people who’d been caught getting deported before, because they would have had a violation in their record. But for the most part there was an attempt to distinguish between people we needed to be worried about and people we didn’t. They didn’t have a policy to go after everybody.
But this so-called zero-tolerance policy, I’ve never seen anything like it. And I’ve worked on these issues for years. I mean, I saw some of these things happening after 9/11 to Arab Americans, Muslim, people being secretly detained and deported. It takes me back to that time when there were mass roundups of people.
There was a time when waterboarding and torture was the accepted thing to do. Then it became unacceptable. This separation of children from their parents is really a form of torture. These women have no idea where their children are. There’s been a lot of research on what happens to young children who are separated from their parents. For some of these kids, it’s been a month—or more! I know you talked about this with Jeff Merkley—well, these women describe the facilities they were in as “dog pounds.”
JW: Yes, he called them “dog kennels.”
PJ: Right. Well that’s what they call them in Spanish: “dog pound.” And Obama set up family-detention centers. It’s complicated. We didn’t think Obama’s enforcement policies should have been that way either, but this is such a different situation from that.
JW: So many of us assume these people are being detained at the border, and so we can’t necessarily go protest, if we can’t go down there, but that’s not true. How do we find out if women are detained in our states? Do I have women being held without their children near me in New York?
PJ: We know some of the places they’re being sent, but we are going to be asking ICE to tell us exactly where these people who’ve been transferred, to different BOP facilities and different detention centers, where they are. But yes, they may be in your backyard. And many of the children may also be in shelters in your backyard. Children are being held in [Office of Refugee Resettlement] shelters, which exist in many places around the country. So most likely many US citizens across the country are near places where mothers and children are being held in this way. I told these women: “I’m going to make sure that everybody outside knows what’s happening to you.