Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said they have "serious concerns" about the treatment of the people now here seeking asylum in the U.S., who activists say were transferred from Texas after crossing the border at Mexico.

Share story

An immigration-rights group says federal authorities are holding more than 100 women seeking asylum in the U.S. at SeaTac’s federal prison after they crossed the Southwest border, separating mothers from their children and marking the first local effect of the Trump administration’s latest crackdown on immigration.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not confirm the number of people transferred to Washington, though it said the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac has 209 beds available to ICE, per an agreement, while it responds to a heightened demand for space to hold detainees.

The report of up to 120 female asylum-seekers here by the advocacy group, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, comes just weeks after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared a “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting every immigrant arrested for illegal entry.

ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in an emailed statement the agency has partnered with five facilities across the country, including the detention center in SeaTac, to meet a new demand for space and hold 1,600 people, in line with the new directive from Sessions.

ICE intends to use those facilities temporarily until it can obtain “long-term contracts for new detention facilities or until the surge in illegal border crossings subsides.”

Immigration-rights advocates insist the federal government has enough space and resources to avoid the delays and are putting asylum-seekers through the transfers to discourage people from entering the country.

“They want to send the message that they’re (refugees) going to face harsh measures if they come here,” said Matt Adams, legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “First, you’re going to lock them up, second we’re going to make you suffer in prison for having come here and then, third, most egregious, we’re going to separate you from your children.”

He said the women at the SeaTac detention center is the first group of people the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project has seen in the Seattle area affected by the presidential administration’s new policy, though he anticipates more in coming weeks.

Under federal law and international treaties, people can obtain asylum in the U.S. if they have a well-grounded fear of persecution back home. Trump administration officials and their allies have charged that the system is rife with fraud and groundless claims and have demanded stricter standards.

Representatives of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project have met with at least two women, from Honduras and El Salvador, who now are dealing with the emotional trauma of not knowing the location of their daughters, ages 11 and 16, Adams said. They were separated at the Southwest border in late May, and one of the women is so distraught she no longer wants asylum and instead wants to return to her home country.

Responding to the women at the local federal prison, Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter late Thursday to U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes, as well as officials with the SeaTac detention center and ICE, saying they have “serious concerns” about the treatment of the asylum seekers and asking questions about their circumstances.

“The Trump administration’s new family separation policy is inflicting intentional, gratuitous, and permanent trauma on young children who have done nothing wrong and on parents who often have valid claims for refugee or asylum status,” the letter says.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, called the news a “new low” for the Trump administration and unethical.

The number of people seeking asylum at the Mexican border, particularly at crossings in California, Arizona and Texas, has been unusually high over the past several weeks, indicating limited effect of the Trump administration’s harsh words and actions on immigration.

Parents and children have formed long lines for their turn at meeting with U.S. border inspectors — a wait that can span days, or even weeks, which means people are sleeping out in the open, sometimes on cardboard, at the crossing facilities.

Francis Cissna, who heads U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told lawmakers last month that new asylum filings tripled between 2014 and 2017 to nearly 142,000, the highest amount in more than 20 years.

Information from Associated Press contributed to this report.