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Shawn Vestal: Treatment of SeaTac asylum-seekers shows how far we still have to go

Maru Mora leads protesters on a march outside the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, Washington, last week to oppose the policy of separating children from their parents seeking asylum. (Alan Berner / AP)
Maru Mora leads protesters on a march outside the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, Washington, last week to oppose the policy of separating children from their parents seeking asylum. (Alan Berner / AP)

If you’re having trouble imagining just what kind of country we are becoming, vis-a-vis that whole “tired, poor and huddled masses” thing, think of SeaTac.

Not the airport. The prison.

Inside the federal prison at SeaTac sit 174 women who came here and asked America to protect them from violence in their home countries. They came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, other countries, and asked for asylum at the southern border. Some of these women were separated from their children, without notice, without goodbyes, without knowledge of where their children were being held, their advocates say.

All underneath the shadows of the landing and departing planes.

This is our regional share of the intentional cruelty now being imposed on asylum-seekers – a step the Trump administration has undertaken purposefully, as a deterrent, meant to send a message to others who might consider coming to America to escape from persecution or violence.

Come for help, this message goes, and we’ll take your kids – and not tell you where we’re keeping them.

Meanwhile, the top justice official in the land issues decrees in the spirit of Herod the Great: “An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote while closing off the possibility of asylum for victims of domestic violence or gang violence. “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

No, indeed. Some misfortunes must be addressed by taking people’s kids in sneaky, underhanded fashion and not revealing where they are.

Who says we stopped torturing people?

This is now who we are, until we prove we’re better: A country that strategically terrorizes kids and parents while all the regular comings and goings of American life – all the arrivals and departures at the airport next door – proceed in normalcy.

The separation of families at the border is a stepped-up expression of the hard line on asylum seekers set under Obama, whose administration began detaining asylum-seeking families together instead of releasing them while their case proceeded through immigration courts.

When Trump officials announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy in May, they specifically envisioned this separation of families as part of the deterrent effect they would be creating at the border. This is sold repeatedly as a get-tough-on-immigration idea that will undercut MS-13, an argument aimed at those whose ability to evaluate people stops at skin color.

John Kelly, recall, assured us that “the children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”

Whatever. Wherever.

The SeaTac asylum seekers – about whom a number of Democratic politicians have begun demanding information from the tight-lipped border regime – were brought from the southern border, where they crossed and were charged with the misdemeanor of illegal entry, said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. They were convicted and sentenced to time served, and are awaiting the disposition of their asylum requests.

“These are not cases where they were trying to sneak in and not get caught – which does happen, obviously,” he said. “But these people, especially those traveling with children, were fully intending to turn themselves in to the Border Patrol.”

Baron’s group helped break through the secrecy surrounding the detentions and separations, after being contacted by some immigrants’ rights advocates in Texas. The NWIRP has begun interviewing the 206 asylum-seekers being held at SeaTac. Of those, 174 are women. It’s not known how many of the people were separated from children.

Baron said he has personally interviewed four women so far, all of whom were separated from a child or children. He said that attempting to get information from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been virtually impossible – most requests simply go unanswered. However, he said, several women have been able to learn the whereabouts of their kids in the week since his group and others have begun intervening and bringing public pressure.

The women describe being separated without a word of goodbye or a bit of information about where their kids were taken. Two of them described a similar situation in a Border Patrol station, Baron said: “At a certain point, the mother is told to go this way, the child is told to go that way…”

Another woman was told to leave her sleeping child behind while she had a court appearance, only to return to find the child gone, Baron said.

“The separation, of course, is terrible,” he said. “But it’s being done in an additionally cruel way.”

The asylum-seekers are undergoing a process known as “credible fear” interviews, to evaluate whether they face the real possibility of “persecution” or “torture” in their home countries. The immigration courts will assess whether they do or not and whether they are granted asylum.

Meanwhile, we’re treating these kids and parents despicably. A certain number of anti-immigrant Americans won’t be moved by their plight; some might even relish it. They’re in the thrall of a movement whose supplies of empathy and pity have been spent entirely on themselves.

Is that most of us? We have to hope not.

But it’s who we are until we prove it’s not.


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