Yolany Padilla and her 6-year-old son arrived at the southern U.S. border in Hidalgo, Texas, on May 18 seeking asylum from her home country of Honduras.
Padilla said federal officers then led them to a detention center, threw away their belongings, and locked them in a holding cell referred to as an "icebox" for the cold temperatures. They took one photo of her, and one photo of her and her son, Jelsin.
"That's the last time I saw my son," she said through her Spanish interpreter, Lizeth Garcia. "Nobody told us anything. We asked questions, but they told us, 'We should've thought about that before we crossed the border.'"
A few days after being released from detention on an $8,000 bond, Padilla at a Wednesday press conference described the separation with her son and experience with federal authorities in Texas before her transfer to Washington state—she spent about a month at the federal prison in SeaTac, then three days at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Padilla, 24, is now the leading plaintiff suing federal agencies through Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to demand that families be reunited with their children. Her son was transferred to New York City after their separation; and despite her release, attorneys said the government is now asking for proof of her fitness as a parent—a process only required of children who cross the border unaccompanied.
Padilla's attorney, Leta Sanchez, said Padilla still doesn't know the details of his son's foster home or how to easily contact him. ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.
"She is a dedicated and loving mother. She has never left Jelsin's side," Sanchez said, adding that she's been asked for more fingerprints (despite having provided them at every detention center), an application to prove income and housing, and background checks. "Every day that Jelsin is withheld from his mother, the damage that has already been caused is perpetuated. ... He cried on the phone this morning because he doesn't understand why she isn't coming to get him."
NWIRP attorneys said they verified at least 55 parents who have been separated from their children by immigration detention in Washington state; that excludes parents whose children are now not in federal authority but in the hands of a spouse or other relative.
Padilla said other detained parents have yet to make contact with their children.
"The punishment has been completed. They have achieved their goal," Padilla said. "It's time to return our kids."