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Why Are Asylum Seekers In Pacific Northwest Prisons?

Sally Ho / AP
This Friday, June 8, 2018 photo shows the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, Wash. The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project reported that as many as 120 asylum seekers had been transferred to this facility.

The Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy on people who enter the United States without permission is having an impact here in the Pacific Northwest. Federal immigration officials have sent some of the people stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border to prisons in Oregon and Washington — including parents separated from their children.

Jorge Barón is the executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Lawyers with his organization have been visiting with immigration detainees brought to prisons in Washington.

“We have had asylum seekers in the past brought here ,” Barón said, “but what’s different now is that these asylum seekers are being brought to a federal prison.”

The other thing that is highly unusual is that in this group of asylum seekers are parents who have been forcibly removed from their children.

“All of them told me they had no warning that they were going to separated and afterwards, they were told or given the impression they would be reunified with their children quickly,” Barón said.

But that didn’t happen. Some of the women Barón spoke with have not had any contact with their children in more than a month.

As of this week, the NWIRP says there are 206 asylum-seekers at SeaTac's Federal Detention Center and an additional 1,400 in federal correctional facilities throughout the United States, including Oregon.

So what happens to these people?

After an immigrant who is seeking asylum is taken into custody, one of the first things that is supposed to happen is what’s called a “Credible Fear” interview. They meet with an asylum officer who determines whether they have a sufficient case to be heard in a full immigration court hearing.

That screening is supposed to be done relatively quickly after someone has been detained, but that’s not what’s happened for the asylum seekers at SeaTac's Federal Detention Center.

“The thing that is concerning to us, is we have folks who have now been detained for over a month who have yet to complete that initial step,” Barón said.

Copyright Oregon Public Broadcasting