Betsy Hale had been closely following news about the separation of immigrant families that sought asylum in the United States. But taking in a woman who had experienced it brought the issue home.
“There are a lot of people who care about this issue, but it’s still kind of an abstract concept,” said Hale, a Seattle resident. “The harsh reality was right there, staring me in the face. It was very emotional.”
Hale hosted the woman from El Salvador for two nights, before her guest left to join family in another state.
During shared meals and walks, the woman told Hale, who speaks Spanish, about escaping violence and being separated from her 9-year-old son at the southern border. She said she only spoke to her son, who was at a shelter in Arizona, twice during her time in the detention center in Tacoma.
“They never got to say goodbye,” said Hale, a board member of the nonprofit Pangea Giving, a Seattle-based group that helps members support grass-roots organizations. “For anyone who is a parent, it’s unimaginable.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has identified 102 children younger than 5 and 2,551 older children who have likely been separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. Last Thursday, Trump administration officials said nearly half the children younger than 5 were still separated from their parents and “ineligible” for reunification.
The administration is facing a July 26 deadline from a federal judge to reunite children ages 5 to 17 with their families.
The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) has identified 56 parents detained in Washington state who were separated from their children at the border, Executive Director Jorge Barón said in an email.
As of Wednesday, at least 24 of those parents had been released from detention, Barón said. Two have been reunited with their children, he said, including Yolany Padilla, whose 6-year-old son was flown in to Seattle on Saturday.
People across Washington state have been mobilizing to help asylum-seekers taken into custody.
Raul Alvarez, development and communications coordinator for NWIRP, said there has been a spike in donations since news about family separations broke. The organization has received more than $1.2 million in the past month, he said.
A retired woman and her husband have opened their home to Padilla, said Leta Sanchez, Padilla’s attorney and president of Immigrant Resources and Immediate Support (IRIS). A former asylum-seeker who received assistance from IRIS is helping Padilla acclimate, she said.
In Seattle, residents have signed up to provide housing, translation services and transportation to asylum-seekers through the Church Council of Greater Seattle, which is coordinating efforts among congregations in King and south Snohomish counties. The council has provided support to seven parents separated from their children and purchased airline tickets for some, Executive Director Michael Ramos said.
The council is preparing to support up to four more people in the coming days, depending on how many are released on bond from federal detention.
Hale is one volunteer on the council’s growing list of 30 people who have offered to house asylum-seekers, Ramos said.
Michael and Linda Warren, members of Temple de Hirsch Sinai, have also offered up their home.
Michael Warren’s grandmother was killed during the Holocaust. His grandfather and father escaped concentration camps only through luck and the kindness of others, he said.
“People who did get out of Nazi Germany got out by fluke,” said Linda Warren, a retired social worker. “If we can give people a longshot the way Michael’s family got a longshot, we want to do it.”
The way asylum-seekers are being treated has struck a nerve, Michael Warren said.
“We’re looking at people from Central America right now for whom this is a life-and-death issue,” he said. “When people need to be saved, you help them and then you deal with the niceties later.”
When Brownen Street, a junior at Western Washington University, heard about families being separated, she thought about the times she lost her mother in a grocery store as a child.
“I can’t even imagine or put into words what these families must have gone through,” said Street, the granddaughter of former Seattle City Councilmember and King County Superior Court Judge Jim Street.
Street and her sister, who both speak Spanish, signed up to be translators through the church council.
Her family also gathered supplies for Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest (AIDNW) in Tacoma, which offers backpacks filled with essentials, temporary housing and help with transportation to all people let out of the Tacoma detention center. It also purchases phone cards for people inside.
The Streets’ neighbor, Linda Zbigley, took the supplies to Tacoma last week. She hopes to get her entire neighborhood involved in gathering supplies.
“Our piece of the story is really short and we’re just beginning,” Zbigley said. “Our intent is to continue doing this to support the folks who have been doing this for years.”
AIDNW has 150 volunteers from around the region, volunteer coordinator Deborah Cruz said. And interest has increased. Lately, she’s been getting at least five emails a day from people wanting to help.
Some separated parents have received supplies or snacks from the organization’s Welcome Center, an RV that greets people let out of detention.
Volunteer Scott Goddard said the number of people released from detention varies per day, but the center expects to see about eight to 10 people a day, with more than half receiving assistance from the Welcome Center.
“It’s a moment of supreme joy for these individuals when they’re released,” Goddard said. “But their joy of freedom is sometimes complicated because there’s a big question mark of, ‘What’s going to happen to me now?’ ”
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