Immigrant rights activists in Seattle file suit accusing US of unfairly prolonging family separations

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Northwest Detention Center is pictured in Tacoma, Washington on February 26, 2017. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

SEATTLE (AP) — Immigrant rights activists in Seattle sued the Trump administration Monday, saying it is unnecessarily prolonging the separation of asylum-seeking immigrants from their children.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle on behalf of three Central American women held in federal custody in Washington state, thousands of miles from where immigration officials have transferred their children. The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of dozens of other immigrants separated from their children and detained in Washington state.

The organization says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has provided no information about whether or when the detainees’ asylum cases will move forward or when they’ll be reunited with their children.

“Without any assertions of abuse, neglect, or parental unfitness, and with no hearings of any kind, the government is detaining these parents on the other side of the country from their young children, who have been left to face an uncertain future frightened and alone,” the lawsuit said. “Many of these parents have been unable to even speak to their children since their separation.”

Washington, California, New Jersey and at least eight other states have also announced plans to jointly sue the administration over the separations this week.

Facing a global uproar, Trump issued an executive order last week halting further separations. But the order did nothing to speed the reunification of families already separated when they reached the U.S.-Mexico border. An administration official told The Associated Press on Monday that the administration is divided about whether the reunifications — or prosecutions and deportations — should take precedence.

The lawsuit accuses the administration of violating the due-process rights of the mothers, inflicting severe emotional trauma on them as well as their children. But in a series of typo-laden tweets, President Donald Trump continued insisting Monday that those apprehended entering the country illegally should not be entitled to due process, but rather immediately deported without an appearance before a judge. Federal law gives such migrants a right to seek asylum.

The lawsuit asks the court to immediately release the detainees and reunify them with their children, or at least detain them together. It also asks the court to order the government to conduct interviews with the detainees to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution or torture if returned to their home country; it’s the first step in the asylum process, but no such interviews have been scheduled for the detainees, further prolonging their detention and separation from their children.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell said in an email the agency does not comment on litigation.

Among the three women suing is Blanca Orantes-Lopez, who fled El Salvador with her 8-year-old son after the family received an anonymous threat demanding $5,000 or the boy’s life; the boy’s uncle had previously been kidnapped and held for ransom. Orantes spoke with The Associated Press last week in a phone interview from a federal prison in SeaTac, south of Seattle. She has since been transferred to the Northwest Detention Center, a privately run immigration jail in Tacoma.

Orantes sobbed throughout the interview, recalling how officials took her boy more than a month ago. She hasn’t seen him since, but she has been able to speak with him twice in the week since the AP’s story ran — for the first time since he was shipped off to transitional housing in upstate New York.

“They told me, ‘Say bye to him because he’s being transferred.’ I asked where,” she recalled. “They just told me to say bye to him. … He just started crying, saying, ‘Don’t leave me, Mom.’ ”

The other plaintiffs are Ibis Guzman, whose 5-year-old son was taken from her after they fled Honduras, and Yolany Padilla, who left Honduras with her 6-year-old son. Guzman has not spoken with her son in more than a month, and Padilla has spoken to hers once, the lawsuit said.