Separating kids from parents is Trump’s latest cruel idea for securing the border

The ACLU sued several government agencies on Monday, alleging that border agents unlawfully detained a 7-year-old girl and her mother.

The Trump administration has started using a new tactic aimed at dissuading immigrants from coming to the United States: separating parents from their young children when families try to cross the border.

The government won’t confirm whether there’s an official policy behind practice, which has reportedly been used with increasing frequency over the past few months. But it’s already led to a lawsuit: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and several other government agencies on Monday, alleging that border agents unlawfully detained a 7-year-old girl and her mother. The lawsuit claims they’ve been kept apart from each other for nearly four months and counting.

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The mother and daughter fled “near certain death” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and somehow managed to make their way to Latin America, trekking through Mexico before turning themselves into border guards near San Diego last November, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit claims they were housed together for four days before immigration agents separated them, and they’ve only spoken to each other by phone six times since. The daughter “worries constantly about how her mother is doing in ‘prison’ and whether she is eating and sleeping properly,” according to the ACLU’s complaint.

Trump officials have portrayed the administration’s harsh policies as intended to have a deterrent effect — keeping people who might otherwise try to enter the U.S. away out of fear of how they’ll be treated. Border Patrol apprehensions of unaccompanied children and asylum-seeking families plummeted during Donald Trump’s first year in office, but a recent uptick may indicate the draconian approach isn’t having the intended effect.

The ACLU did not offer details about what forced the mother and her daughter, identified in court documents as Ms. L and S.S., respectively, to flee the Congo. But a recent surge in violence has displaced thousands of people in the country in recent months, according to the United Nations.

An increasing number of migrants and refugees from Africa and Asia have crossed the Atlantic in recent years and journeyed to the U.S. through South and Central America. The Mexican government reported apprehending more than 2,000 undocumented immigrants from Africa last year and more than 5,000 from Asia.

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After arriving at the border, the mother passed a “credible fear” interview, meaning a federal official found her story believable, and she and her daughter could stay in the U.S. while her case remained pending. But after four days, border patrol agents separated the two. The lawsuit claims the mother “could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother.” “No one explained to Ms. L. why they were taking her daughter away from her or where her daughter was going or even when she would next see her daughter,” according to the lawsuit.

Since then, the mother has been held at an immigrant detention center in San Diego while the daughter remains in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at a facility in Chicago.

“We’re hoping to reunite this family. But we’re also hoping to stop the practice nationwide.”

“We’re hoping to reunite this family,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU attorney in the lawsuit filed on Monday. “But we’re also hoping to stop the practice nationwide.”

It’s unclear whether the Department of Homeland Security has formally established a policy on separating parents from children when families are detained at the border. Such a proposal was in the works in December, according to a New York Times report, but had not yet been finalized.

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On Feb. 8, Congressional Democrats sent a letter to Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen demanding clarification about the department’s policy.

“Separating children from their parents is unconscionable and contradicts the most basic of American family values,” the letter stated. “Moreover, the reported justification of this practice as a deterrent to family migration suggests a lack of understanding about the violence many families are fleeing in their home countries. More pointedly, the pretext of deterrence is not a legally sufficient basis for separating families.”

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A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment, citing pending litigation. But the department’s Press Secretary Tyler Houlton said in December that the Trump administration “is committed to using all legal tools at its disposal to secure our nation’s borders and as a result we are continuing to review additional policy options.”

At the time, Houlton said that the Department of Homeland Security had approved some “procedural, policy, and regulatory changes” and was working with other agencies “to implement them in the near future.”

Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico, on July 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Still, immigration attorneys in Tucson, Arizona, worked on 213 cases last year where parents were separated from children, according to The Los Angeles Times. The attorneys added they’ve already handled another 23 such cases in 2018. Another immigration attorney in El Paso reported handling 15 family separation cases already this year.

“What people don’t realize is that under the radar while they say they’re deciding there’s a policy, as a matter of practice it’s happening across the country,” Gelernt said. “Whether they formalize or not, it at this rate, they’re going to separate dozens and dozens or even hundreds and hundreds of families.”

Maureen Meyer, director of the Mexico program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy organization, said it’s unrealistic to think that people who fear death in their homeland will decide to stay put just because of Trump’s policies. If anything, she said, fewer people will now present themselves to border guards.

“This may lead more families to cross border undetected,” Meyer said. “They’re so afraid of being separated and put in detention, they’re willing to make that dangerous trek through the desert and put themselves and their children at even greater risk.”

Cover image: Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas, on Sept. 10, 2014. (AP/Eric Gay)