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Separated from children, SeaTac asylum seekers face legal limbo

The Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. (Sounder Bruce, Flickr)

Before she crossed the US-Mexico border seeking asylum with her 15-year-old daughter, one mother faced  difficult challenges.

The mother is among 206 people being held at the federal detention center in SeaTac. It is not known where her daughter was sent. About 2,000 children have been separated from their parents at the border as part of a new Trump administration policy enforced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“[The mother] was fleeing this very abusive ex-partner,” said Executive Director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Jorge Baron. “She had left him and he continued to stalk her and had been making threats that he was going to kill her. The stalking was escalating and he had displayed, at one point, a gun. She was convinced he was going to kill her. That’s the reason she decided to come to the US.

“In addition to that, she was also concerned about her daughter who had been threatened by gang members with sexual violence and worried that if she didn’t follow through on their demands to have sex with them, she might be killed,” he said. “Both those situations – level of gang violence, gender-based violence, domestic violence – are the kinds of claims that Attorney General Sessions wants to reject now. I am concerned that the asylum officers and immigration judges will follow through on that.”

“We are concerned that the process might keep them in detention for a long time while we fight that through the courts,” he added.

RELATED: Gov. Inslee, AG Ferguson want answers on SeaTac detainees

Asylum: Membership in a social group

Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said that domestic violence, as Baron described, has become a common reason for seeking asylum at the border. But it has also become a contentious gray area under Sessions.

“Asylum is something that an immigrant applies for, whether they come in on a visa or walk across the border,” McKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “It’s traditionally granted on the grounds of persecution for race, religion, nationality, political affiliation in the person’s home country. But there’s another category as well, which is ‘membership in a social group.’”

“What’s been happening for the last decade or so is that many victims of domestic violence and victims of gang violence have been seeking asylum on the grounds of being in a persecuted social group,” McKenna said. “They are arguing, for example, that as women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their marriages, they are part of a social group that is being persecuted; they are victims of domestic violence. That’s what Attorney General Sessions is addressing in his order.”

Asylum isn’t immediately granted, however. There is a process to handle the claims. There are hearings before an administrative judge. Those can be appealed up to the board of immigration appeals within the Department of Justice.

“So they actually provide evidence,” McKenna said.

What Sessions has been arguing, according to McKenna, is that asylum is limited to older concepts: race, nationality, and political affiliation.

“That is the point he is making; we can’t solve the world’s ills; terrible things happen to people and their own law enforcement systems don’t protect them,” McKenna said. “On the other hand, other AGs have disagreed with that. Janet Reno and some of her successors have believed that being a victim of domestic violence in some circumstances would qualify you for asylum. So would being a victim of gang violence.”

“It comes down to the language in the asylum statute; whether you are part of persecuted social group or not,” he added. “In a case that the board of immigration appeals decided back in 2014, they said, ‘Yep, a woman from Guatemala who can’t get out of a marriage, that qualifies.’ Attorney General Sessions is reversing that.”

SeaTac detention

Baron said that volunteer attorneys met with 72 people out of the 206 held in SeaTac by the end of last week. A couple dozen of those are parents separated from their children; at least three are fathers. Baron estimates that after all are counted, about 50 will be parents separated from children.

On Friday, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project gave a presentation to detainees about their legal rights.

“To help them understand where they are at, what the situation is, what they can expect going forward,” Baron said. “… we wanted to make sure that as many of them as possible have information about what the process is going to look like and what their rights are in this process.”

Baron said that they are likely going to be put through screenings by asylum officers. It’s an initial screening where the officers determine if there is enough information to warrant a full immigration court hearing. It’s something that usually happens within a couple weeks of entering the country, Baron said. Many of the people at SeaTac have been waiting for at least a month.

Baron argues there is little reason to continue keeping the parents from their children at this point. Criminal proceedings for crossing the border have been completed — something that is not commonly done for asylum seekers, he says.

“They are using that as the excuse for separating the children,” Baron said. “…I don’t accept that. But even if you did accept that, the criminal process has been done. Now they are just back in immigration detention, so there is no reason they couldn’t be reunified with their children.”

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