On Monday afternoon, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) watched the White House’s hastily-arranged press conference featuring Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in stunned disbelief. “I’m dumbfounded that she would lie her way through that press conference,” Jayapal tells Rolling Stone. “First she said the policy didn’t exist, then she came out and full-throatedly defended it. Then she made it sound like these kids are somehow in summer camp.”
Since the Trump administration instituted its “zero-tolerance” border policy in April, reporters, lawyers, advocates and even members of Congress have been largely shut out of immigrant detention facilities, making it difficult for children and their parents to contradict the narrative offered by Nielsen and other members of the Trump administration. Jayapal is an exception. Two days before the press briefing, the congresswoman arrived at a federal prison in SeaTac, Washington, where she spent three hours speaking with the help of a Spanish translator to some 168 female immigrants who had pled guilty to illegal entry. (Tomorrow, she plans to return to speak with 32 temporarily-detained men as well.) Jayapal is one of the few lawmakers who knows firsthand how disingenuous it was for Nielsen to tell reporters that the suggestion the family-separation policy is inhumane “completely disrespects” the officials implementing it.
“This is not about policy,” Jayapal says. “This is about right and wrong and I take great umbrage that she tries to say that she knows what’s happening and she is literally telling lies. She does not know what’s happening in her department. I think it’s time for her to resign.”
During her visit to the detention center, Jayapal heard from mothers who reported being told they need to be photographed or go see the judge, then returned to find their children were gone. Many of them were given a sheet of paper with their children’s names on it – only, in some instances, the wrong child was listed. Some women could hear their children crying in the next room, but were powerless to comfort them; others hadn’t known where their child was for over a month. “It was just heartbreaking,” Jayapal says. “They were all asylum seekers. They had horrific stories of why they had made the journey to the border and horrific stories of what they had sacrificed in order to come.”
One detainee, a mother of three, told Jayapal she’d made the trek from El Salvador with her youngest child. “Her oldest was shot and killed by gangs, her second was shot and paralyzed by gangs and she actually left the second paralyzed child at home in order to try and get the third to safety,” Jayapal says. “Another woman had a blind child at home who she knew could not make the journey, so she left that child and brought her other child to try to at least keep one child safe…They sacrificed parts of their family to save other parts of their family. This is who’s coming in. This is who Donald Trump is trying to convince the American people that they are trying to do us harm. This is who Trump says is ‘infesting’ America.”
Jayapal spoke to these women two to four weeks after they were apprehended, and none of them had yet been offered a “credible fear” screening, the standard hearing before an immigration judge to explain the reason for fleeing a home country and requesting asylum in the U.S.
By Sunday evening, Jayapal had coordinated with MoveOn, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and other union and faith leaders to plan a mass mobilization to take place on June 30th. After they announced it Tuesday night, sister events were planned in more than 200 cities. The flagship protest, though, will take place in Washington, D.C. “It needs to be right at President Trump,” Jayapal says. “It needs to be right at the White House. That was very, very important to us because he was the one who put this in place and he can reverse it immediately with the snap of his fingers.”
By Wednesday afternoon, Trump had, in fact, signed an executive order ending family separations. But preparations for the protest are going forward as planned, and Jayapal is calling for Congressional hearings. “I have a set of questions around how are they assuring the reunification of these children with their parents and then a lot of questions about the conditions, about whether people are getting clean drinking water,” Jayapal says. “These children should not be held in cages, they should not be separated from their parents and really that’s what it comes down to. And Trump can end it right now. He can end it right at this very moment.”