Community members with young kids in tow packed a meeting to learn how to assist asylum seekers separated from their own children. 
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Community members with young kids in tow packed a meeting to learn how to assist asylum seekers separated from their own children.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

Hundreds pack Seattle church to help local detainees separated from children

Hundreds of community members packed a meeting at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle on Wednesday to find out how to help asylum seekers detained in SeaTac and Tacoma.

Dozens of the asylum seekers held at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center, a federal prison just south of the airport, and the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma are women who arrived at the border with their children—children who were then taken away from their parents by border agents.

The overflow crowd at the church included lots of mothers with their own young children in tow. The children played with matchbox cars in the back of the room while immigration lawyers and religious leaders provided updates and answered questions.

Mandy Turner came from Issaquah with her nine-month-old daughter. She said she’s been outraged to hear of children taken from their parents at the border as part of the federal “zero tolerance” policy toward asylum seekers.

“It breaks my heart to hear those things and I felt compelled to come find out what I could do to take action against this,” she said.

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Katherine Fitzpatrick said on a normal day she’d be at home taking care of her school-age children. But today she wanted to find out how she could help detainees.

“It’s horrific and it’s very cruel, it’s a cruel way of deterring asylum seekers,” she said of the family separation policy.

Fitzpatrick said she grew up in South Africa and saw parallels there to how the Trump Administration explained its actions. “Seeing those kinds of things and the lies that they were telling, very similar to apartheid,” she said.

With the meeting in progress, news broke that President Trump had signed an executive order discontinuing the family separation policy. Matt Adams, with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, called the order a positive development. But, he said, it’s “deeply troubling” that the new order seeks to expand the detention of families at the border and detain them indefinitely.

At the meeting, people signed up to visit detainees, offer them shelter when they’re released, and donate travel funds. But Michael Ramos with the Church Council of Greater Seattle said they haven’t been able to visit detainees yet and aren’t sure when they’ll be released. “It’s all anticipatory, that if and when people are released we’re ready to walk with them,” he said.

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Immigration lawyers said they are also working to provide phone cards to the detainees. They said most parents have been given a document with their child’s location, but none have been able to call them so far.

The attorneys said that about fifty of the more than 200 asylum seekers housed at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac were parents separated from children who are under the age of 18.

Enoka Herat, an attorney with the ACLU of Washington, said that, more recently, the majority of those detained parents have been transferred to the immigration detention center in Tacoma.

“That means that they will hopefully see an immigration judge soon, and there might be a bond hearing at some point, but they’re still in process,” she said. "They still are not reunited with their kids.”

Despite the new executive order ending family separation, it’s not clear how families already in the system will be treated.

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Officials with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement did not respond to a request for comment.