Update: ICE confirmed to KUOW that 209 people are currently being held at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center — 177 of them women. We do not know how many of them are mothers who were separated from their children at the border.
As many as 209 asylum seekers captured near the U.S.-Mexico border have been transferred to a federal prison in SeaTac — many of them women who had their children taken from them by federal agents, immigrant rights attorneys say.
Attorneys with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project interviewed two women who are currently imprisoned at SeaTac's Federal Detention Center. The attorneys say that under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy for asylum seekers, these two women were separated from their children — 16- and 11-year-old daughters — after being held in a Texas detention center in mid-May.
Federal prosecutors charged the mothers with unlawful entry, a federal misdemeanor. They've served their sentences, however, and were sent to federal prisons pending the asylum applicaton process. Their children are currently being held in unknown government facilities elsewhere.
"The mothers are desperate to find out exactly what is happening because they don't know even where [their children] are," Matt Adams, NWIRP legal director, said.
Adams said that the children are also being placed into deportation proceedings, but are treated as unaccompanied minors and forced to go through the process alone.
"Even more painful, they're separated now thousands of miles away from their mothers without contact in constant fear of what's happening to themselves, to their parents, not knowing when they will be reunified," he said.
The two women told their attorneys that there are at least 60 women being held in SeaTac under similar circumstances.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that it had entered into agreements with the federal prison system, private prisons, and the U.S. Marshals Service to hold an additional 1,600 people scooped up at the border.
"The use of [Bureau of Prisons] facilities is intended to be a temporary measure until ICE can obtain additional long-term contracts for new detention facilities or until the surge in illegal border crossings subsides," ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett said in a statement.
Responding to the news, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter to Seattle's ICE director, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Detention Center, demanding more information about the asylum seekers.
"The Trump Administration's new family separation policy is inflicting intentional, gratuitous, and permanent trauma on young children who have done nothing wrong and on parents who often have valid claims for refugee or asylum status," they wrote. "We need to understand immediately what impacts this new policy is having on people here in our state."
Many of the women held at the SeaTac prison were fleeing from widespread gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, Adams said.
"It is blatantly apparent that our federal government is seeking to scare off and frighten other asylum seekers from coming to this country based upon the misery and suffering they impose on these families who are already here seeking asylum," he added.
SeaTac's Federal Detention Center is one of five prisons across the country where the asylum seekers were sent.