Reunited with her 6-year-old son Saturday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, nearly two months after he was taken from her by immigration officials, Yolany Padilla urged asylum-seeking parents still separated from their children to stay strong.
They should have faith, said the 24-year-old Honduran recently released from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. “The moment will come,” she said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.
Padilla and her son, Jelsin, hadn’t seen each other since they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in May and were split up. While she was in the private immigration jail in Tacoma, he was in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in New York, attending school at a child-welfare center there.
Jelsin flew across the country to be with his mom. After his plane landed Saturday, they walked out past security hand in hand, pausing to speak with reporters.
Dressed in khakis, a gray shirt and blue sneakers, Jelsin looked around with big eyes, silently taking in the scene. Padilla kept her arms wrapped around the little boy’s shoulders as she described the instant she first glimpsed him.
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen him … I felt like my heart was going to come out of my body,” she said. “I wanted to tell him so many things, but I couldn’t.”
Jelsin traveled by himself, though Delta Air Lines personnel helped him during the trip, according to Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP). The government paid for the flight, Barón said.
NWIRP has said it knows of 55 people were who detained at the border and separated from their children before being transferred to Washington state under President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.
Most of them remain behind bars, Barón said, despite a federal judge in San Diego last month ordering that children under 5 years old be reunited to their families by July 10 and those ages 5 to 17 by July 26.
On Thursday, Trump administration officials said 57 of 103 children under 5 had been reunited with their families, with the other 46 deemed “ineligible” for various reasons.
“There are over 2,500 children across the country right now who are still separated from their family members. Even just here in our region, there are over 40 parents still detained,” Barón said.
“This hasn’t happened because the administration, in all of its wisdom, decided to do the right thing,” he added.
Padilla is a named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed by NWIRP challenging the family separations.
Out on bond since July 6, she was believed to be the first such parent detained in the state to be released. ICE has declined to comment on the case.
“This has happened because people have been advocating,” Barón said of Padilla’s release. “The government didn’t decide to release Yolany. We had to go to court to get the judge to give her a bond. We had to pay that bond for her to get released.”
Unlike some parents in similar circumstances across the U.S., Padilla at least knew where her child was.
But she had to wait a week to see him, clearing bureaucratic hurdles.
“What I want to do is go running toward where he is,” the mother told The Seattle Times last week.
Though Padilla was desperate to see Jelsin, it was hard for her to leave “the other mothers she got to know” while detained, Barón said, urging the Trump administration to reunify all the families immediately.
“What we’re demanding is that we see moments like these right away,” he said, mentioning the potential long-term effects on children taken from their parents at the border. “We hope the government will take a different tack and that this just never happens again.”
Before her release, Padilla passed a “credible fear” interview, the first step in an asylum application.
In order to get her son back, she had to show proof of safe housing and income. A local family volunteered to put them up “for the coming days,” Barón said.
“Yolany had no plans of being in our area, but she’s felt so welcomed by the people supporting her here that she’s decided, at least for now, to stay,” Barón said.
Enacted in April, the administration’s zero-tolerance policy detained detained parents who crossed the border illegally and put their children in federal custody. Amid an international uproar, Trump signed an executive order June 20 calling for families to be detained together.
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