Washington advocates have filed a lawsuit on behalf of three mothers separated from their children as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy on illegal immigration.
The women, from Central America, were transferred to federal facilities in Washington after crossing illegally at the U.S.-Mexico border and asking for asylum. Their children were sent to locations in New York and Texas.
Lawyers with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed the lawsuit Monday in federal court in Seattle. They are seeking to expand the case to cover roughly 50 parents held apart from their children in Washington.
Attorneys are asking a judge to force the federal government to reunify parents with their children, either by releasing them or housing them in a facility where their children can be held with them.
The lawsuit names U.S. Immigration or Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as a defendant. A spokeswoman said ICE cannot comment on pending litigation.
The mothers say they were separated from their elementary school-aged sons in May.
Ibis Guzman, who is from Honduras, was detained in Laredo, Texas, before authorities sent her to a federal detention center in SeaTac, then to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Her five-year-old son was placed thousands of miles away with a human-services nonprofit in San Antonio, Texas.
"Ms. Guzman is extremely distraught and depressed because of the separation from her son, and cries when she speaks about him," the lawsuit states. "She worries he is also experiencing anxiety from the separation and may not be eating. In Honduras, she was a single mother and was with her son almost constantly, so being apart from him affects her profoundly."
Blanca Orantes, who is from El Salvador, has also been transferred to the Northwest Detention Center. Her eight-year-old son was placed in a residential treatment program for boys in New York's Hudson Valley.
Yolany Padilla, who is from Honduras, is being held in SeaTac while her six-year-old son is with an upstate New York nonprofit. Her attorneys say she has spoken to him once by phone.
"During the call, the boy mostly cried quietly," the lawsuit states. "Ms. Padilla has been unable to call him again."
Parents face uncertainty
President Trump said last week he would end his administration's policy of separating parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the fates of thousands of parents already separated from their children remain unclear.
Many asylum seekers, including the three women named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, have not yet undergone an initial "credible fear" interview, despite being detained for a month or more.
They could face long waits in detention.
The 50 or so parents who arrived in Washington facilities were part of a larger group of more than 200 people sent to the state for asylum proceedings since the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" directive in April.
Jorge Barón, director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said such an influx of cases is unusual but not unprecedented.
"We had a slightly similar situation in 2016 where we had about a 150 Haitian asylum seekers who were brought to the Yakima County Jail," he said. "But obviously in that situation we did not have the factor of family separation, which adds a whole layer of humanitarian impact."
Immigration courts in Washington have a backlog of 10,850 pending cases, the highest number in 20 years, according to data compiled by Syracuse University.
Immigration cases in the state are taking an average of 641 days to resolve, again the highest number in 20 years.
It's not just parents being held in Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee said last week that nine children were transferred to the state after being separated from parents at the border. He said their parents are detained in other states.
Officials with ICE and the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement did not respond to questions Monday about next steps for parents and children who are currently separated.
Encampment grows in Tacoma
Meanwhile, an encampment of protesters has been growing outside the Northwest Detention Center since last week, when most of the 50 parents separated from their children were transferred there from the SeaTac facility.
Activists have set up tents and banners outside the center's fences, where they've been holding daily rallies.
Andy Ribaudo, a U.S. Army veteran, said the family-separation policy motivated him to camp outside the center's gates.
"I have a two-and-a-half-year-old," he said. "Kids aren't criminals. They're kids. They're children. And you don't attack children."
Ribaudo said about 20 protesters have spent the night in the encampment some nights, with more arriving for rallies. Activists are calling for the abolishment of ICE.
Protesters camped outside an ICE field office in Portland last week forced the agency to suspend operations at the building.