In recent days, images of Border Patrol agents on horseback corralling Haitian asylum seekers at the Texas-Mexico border have reminded Americans of the racist origins — and current practices — of our nation’s immigration enforcement agencies. While Washingtonians are right to recoil from these images, the practice of unlawfully expelling asylum-seekers happens in our state, too, we just haven’t seen pictures.

Due to lower numbers of migrants, border enforcement practices in Washington state largely escape scrutiny. But the same abuses happen here. Title 42, for example, is the Trump-era policy of expelling asylum-seekers, ostensibly on public health grounds; the Border Patrol agents were enforcing this rule when they forced Haitian refugees back into Mexico. Not only is this cruel, it’s illegal, and because such practices deny migrants their right to present a lawful request for asylum, Title 42 violates both U.S. and international law.

A federal court recently ordered the practice to stop, but the Biden administration has appealed that ruling. Meanwhile, figures posted on U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website show that as recently as last month, dozens of migrants continued to be expelled at the northern U.S.-Canadian border under Title 42.

This isn’t new. Last year, The New York Times reported that unaccompanied children and families were being held in motels while subjected to Title 42 expulsions here in Washington state. These families are arrested and sent to motels near SeaTac International Airport, including Tukwila’s Econolodge and the Red Roof Inn on International Boulevard. In some cases, documents show that families are separated; fathers are typically sent to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, while mothers and children are held in motels before being shipped cross-country to a family detention center in Texas or Pennsylvania.

Why separate the dads? I’ve spoken to lawyers for these families who report that trying to defend the rights of the mother and child, with the father detained in another state or already deported, makes an already herculean task harder.

In recent years, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) has fought to obtain information about these practices in our state, but we’ve received few answers. No one but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or CBP knows how many families are separated in Washington state under Title 42. And no one but ICE or CBP knows who is responsible for overseeing the safety of children and families held in SeaTac area motels.


Nationwide, ICE has contracted a private security company, MVM, to transport children and families. In recent years, MVM has been found detaining juveniles in vacant office spaces, where they bathed in sinks. ICE insisted that such visits were short-term stays, as MVM’s contract does not intend for juveniles to be held for more than 24 hours before being transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Yet documents released to UWCHR this summer show that at least one unaccompanied child was held at the Red Roof Inn near SeaTac for four days in 2018.

While ICE imposes a host of requirements on MVM employees, these don’t extend to the work of subcontractors. And MVM does not operate in Washington state, so the work of transporting minors from the border to SeaTac must be done by a subcontractor. It is unknown who that company is, whether its personnel are licensed child-care providers or what standards govern their work.

The Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families claims no oversight over the practices of federal contractors or subcontractors detaining youth and families for immigration enforcement in Washington state.

While the recent scenes from the southern border are appalling, ICE documents of arrests in Washington tell stories of suffering that goes unseen. In one record, a Mexican mother and her 3-year-old son attempted to conceal themselves in a field near the border by lying down under a jacket between the raspberry rows. In another, a 17-year-old Indian girl was apprehended near Blaine; she was walking barefoot in January. These are vulnerable families seeking refuge and deserving respect; at the very least, the Washington state congressional delegation, our local elected officials, and all Washingtonians of conscience should demand our government answer questions about how, where and by whom migrant families subjected to Title 42 are being held in our state.

Editor’s note: This guest column was corrected to say that federal agents were corralling immigrants at the border. Previously, the column suggested agents were whipping the immigrants.

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