Executives at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons received bonuses totaling more than $2 million despite ongoing problems.
WASHINGTON – After U.S. authorities took Yolany Padilla’s 6-year-old son from her at the border in mid-May, she slept for days in a freezing holding cell, spent hours shackled on buses and a plane and eventually ended up at a federal prison in Seattle.
Water at a Texas holding center was so scarce, some migrants resorted to drinking toilet water, said Padilla, a 24-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras.
Throughout the ordeal, the echo of her son Jelsin’s voice was the only thing Padilla could cling to, she told USA TODAY through a translator after her release from detention.
“No, Mommy, I don’t want to go!” Jelsin Padilla called out.
Padilla was among thousands of migrants swept up in President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy, which resulted in the separation of more than 2,500 families.
Padilla’s odyssey included multiple stops at facilities near the border before she was sent to Seattle and then finally reunited July 14 with her son, who had been taken to a shelter in New York.
Her journey illustrates the hardship and uncertainty experienced by adult migrants whose children were taken to shelters thousands of miles away. Padilla’s ordeal also underscores the chaotic implementation of a policy that has forced the federal government to scramble to find detention spaces.
On Thursday, the Trump administration faces a court-ordered deadline to reunite separated families. U.S. authorities have identified 2,551 children removed from their parents. Of those, 1,637 were found to be eligible for reunification.
As of Tuesday, 1,012 of the 1,637 families considered eligible had been reunited, according to government lawyers.
In response to inquiries by USA TODAY about the Padillas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment, citing a pending lawsuit brought by the Honduran woman and two other migrants.
More: Family separations continue to haunt White House
More: A timeline of how the separations started
But ICE defended its detention system, saying in a statement that it “takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care.”
“The agency is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” the statement said, adding that ICE has “a multi-layered inspections program” for detention facilities.
Yolany and Jelsin Padilla completed a 1,600-mile journey from their native Honduras in 15 days. Beginning May 18, they began a new, 50-day odyssey in which Yolany Padilla was transported about 2,700 miles as she was ushered between holding centers in the Southwest and put on a plane headed for SeaTac prison near Seattle. Jelsin was whisked more than 2,000 miles away to New York from a border crossing near McAllen, Texas.
It would be almost a month before mother and son would speak again.
The Padillas were four days into their trek from Honduras May 7 when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an immigration enforcement strategy that would split their family and hundreds of others.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” Sessions warned in San Diego, in the shadow of the Mexican border. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
In a speech before the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Los Angeles, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday defended the need to enforce the country’s immigration laws and said voters elected the president to do just that. (June 26)
Trump, bowing to intense criticism of the separations, halted the policy in June.
For the Padillas, there would be no rolling back the clock.
“We didn’t know; we didn’t know,” the mother said.
Like other families in the Padillas’ traveling group, their plan was to surrender to U.S. agents at the border and declare an intent to seek asylum. The effect of the enforcement policy would soon become clear.
At a south Texas processing center, Padilla said adults were directed to one side of a large room and children to the other. The children began to cry.
Yolany Padilla and her son were briefly brought back together for a photograph.
Then Jelsin was gone.
For Padilla, the next three days were spent in a chilled holding center. She and other migrants were issued metallic blankets.
“The conditions were not good,” the young mother said. “People were sleeping on the floor. It was freezing. Nobody had a bed. There were women who looked to be pregnant.”
Food consisted of sandwiches, featuring what appeared to be partially defrosted ham. For drinking water, some detainees dipped into the wells of toilet tanks.
It was difficult, she said, to discern between day and night.
Migrants were loaded onto buses for transfer to another detention center. Padilla said she believed the next facility was in Laredo, about 150 miles from the initial border crossing near McAllen.
Conditions in Laredo were not much better.
“It was always very cold,” Padilla said.
The chilly conditions inside border detention centers have led immigrants to refer to them as “iceboxes.” In Laredo, Padilla said migrants had a chance to venture outside to the warmth but she and others declined because of pat-down searches required when they returned.
“We didn’t like them touching us,” Padilla said of the female guards.
When Padilla and other mothers asked for their children, their questions were largely dismissed.
“They told me that they didn’t know nothing,” Padilla said.
The grim conditions at detention facilities have prompted complaints from U.S. lawmakers.
“I’ve had serious concerns about what’s happening,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who recently toured a facility in Victorville, Calif., one of five prisons designated as temporary immigrant detention centers. Takano said the prison was not set up to handle a migrant population.
Court papers highlighted harsh conditions at a processing center in El Centro, California, where detainees were allegedly provided dirty water to drink and frozen food to eat.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the conditions revealed in court filings suggested violations of mandates for minimum standards for immigration detention centers.
“We have an obligation to treat children and families humanely,” Feinstein said.
At the Victorville prison, Takano said staffing shortages and language barriers have only added to the difficulty of sheltering an influx of migrants.
Among the thousands caught up in the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy were an unlikely number of detainees representing at least 20 countries, including India, China, Turkey, Romania and Kosovo.
Indeed, a USA TODAY review of nearly half the roster of detainees who had been housed at Victorville included more than 50 citizens of India. An undisclosed number of Indian nationals also are among the 130 detainees sent to the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon.
Former vice president Joe Biden says he’s ‘ashamed’ of Trump’s immigration policy that led to a national scandal over the separation of migrant children and parents at the border.
Takano said migrants from outside U.S. time zones – including Asia, West Africa and Eastern Europe – have had little access to telephones during times when they could reach family members. He said he was told many detainees had gone without changes of clothes or bedding. And there was only one physician assigned to the entire Victorville facility, where the new migrant population pushed the population to more than 4,500.
Federal prison officials defended the conditions at Victorville and the other four detention locations, saying 25 medical staffers from other institutions had been sent to the California prison to assist temporarily.
“The influx of ICE detainees into our institutions does not detract from our mission to house individuals in facilities that are safe, secure and humane,” the federal prison bureau said in a written response to USA TODAY’s inquiries.
The agency said detainees have access to telephones from 6 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. Pacific Time. As of July 6, immigration detainees had placed more than 6,000 calls, the agency said.
The prison bureau said there was “an initial shortage of uniform jumpsuits,” but that issue was resolved and detainees were receiving a weekly change of clothing and linens.
But Eric Young, president of the national union representing federal prison workers, said staffers at all five prisons housing migrants have struggled with the language barriers and a lack of training and staff to deal with migrant populations.
The Trump administration has been shrinking the prison bureau’s workforce and trying to fill shortages in the guard force with teachers, food service workers, secretaries and nurses.
When the decision was made to tap the federal prisons for detention space, Young said staffers only learned 24 to 48 hours before the detainees arrived.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working to reunite migrant children separated from their parents at the border. The agency has until July 26th to do so. This timeline sheds light on months of controversy and fierce backlash.
“There was no sit-down with headquarters to explain what was happening; there was no explanation of where these people were coming from,” Young said. “The only answer to all of the questions that I had were: ‘I don’t know.'”
Next stop: Seattle
Until Padilla was handed a piece of paper by immigration authorities revealing she was headed to Seattle, she knew little about the city. At about 6 p.m. on June 1, Padilla and others were rousted out of their Laredo dormitories and loaded onto buses headed to the airport. Shackled at the wrist and waist, they were anxious, and the wait seemed interminable, she said.
Word reached the group that a problem required that another plane be dispatched to ferry them to Seattle.
Padilla said the migrants remained in shackles until the next afternoon – with no sleep, little food and water – until they were told it was time to board.
Federal immigration authorities were given an account of the timeline outlined by Padilla but did not comment on it.
On the plane, passengers were served bread, an apple and a bottle of water.
“But they didn’t release our hands to eat,” she said.
First phone call
After a bus ride to SeaTac prison, the shackles were removed. But the worries remained: Where were the kids?
For Padilla, the question would not be answered until mid-June, nearly a month after she and her child were separated.
A Honduran consulate representative arrived with news that Jelsin had been placed with the shelter near the Bronx. The consulate provided phone numbers, but because of coastal time differences, the initial calls failed to go through.
Padilla said a sympathetic federal officer helped her the following day. On June 18, she and her son spoke for 10 minutes. She did most of the talking as the boy cried into the phone.
Immigration attorneys have been pressing the Padillas’ asylum case ever since.
She won parole July 6, when she was released on an $8,000 bond, much of it raised with community donations.
On July 13, she was told Jelsin would be on a Delta Airlines flight bound for Seattle. Padilla said she did not fully accept the news until the two embraced at the airport the next day.
Mother and son have remained in the Seattle-area with a sponsor family as their asylum application is pending.
But the pain of their separate journeys remains fresh.
“As human beings, I don’t believe we deserved to be treated like this,” Padilla said.
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