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To Curb Illegal Immigration, DHS Separating Families At The Border

Feb 27, 2018
Originally published on February 27, 2018 11:25 am

The Department of Homeland Security has undertaken its most extreme measure yet to discourage asylum seekers from coming to the U.S. — family separation.

A 39-year-old mother is named as Ms. L in a lawsuit brought against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. L traveled with her 7-year-old daughter, named as S.S., from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mexico. They surrendered to immigration agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego in December and asked for asylum. They said they were fleeing violence in DRC.

The mother is being held in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, Calif. by Immigration and Customs Enforcement; her daughter is 2,000 miles away at a youth shelter in Chicago run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. They are only able to speak by phone.

"When the daughter was taken, she (Ms. L) could hear her daughter in the next room, screaming, 'Mommy, don't let them take me!'" said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.

The lawsuit claims that immigration agents violated the Congolese mother's constitutional right to due process when they took her daughter away. It asks the government, if it is going to detain them during the asylum process, at least allow them to be together.

"The child has become the pawn in a public policy move by the administration trying to deter other asylum seekers," said Gelernt.

Under Obama, DHS detained some unauthorized families in camps in South Texas rather than release them in the U.S. while their cases are heard. But the Trump administration has gone further, arresting immigrant parents in the U.S. who paid smugglers to bring their children across the border. It also wants to expand detention space for immigrants.

Asked why the mother and child were separated, Katie Waldman, a public affairs officer with Homeland Security emailed NPR: "As a matter of policy, we don't comment on pending litigation."

The practice of separating undocumented families to discourage them from coming to the U.S. is not a formal, stated policy of the Trump administration. But immigrant activists say it has been quietly growing in frequency along the southern border.

"The increase in family separation is something that's being documented by organizations around the country. We began to hear a noticeable increase in this practice in the summer," said Katharina Obser, senior policy advisor with the Women's Refugee Commission. Her organization and other immigrant advocates released a report in December denouncing ICE's use of family separation. And earlier this month, 75 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen blasting family separation as wrong and unlawful.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has documented 53 incidents of family separation in the last nine months, mostly Central Americans. Other immigrant support groups say there are many more cases.

Asylum seekers from Central America say they're fleeing rampant gang violence. But the administration believes most of them are gaming the system.

"It's terrible what these smugglers do to these individuals," Matt Albence, an executive associate director with ICE told NPR's All Things Considered in December. "We need to realize that stopping this flow and preventing these crossings is the best thing that we can do right now."

He added, "It's a huge operational problem. We have hundreds of thousands of these cases clogging up the immigration court docket. A vast majority of these individuals that get to this country and served with a notice to appear in front of an immigration judge don't show up."

Immigration lawyers say the tactic is effective — mothers may drop their cases and go home in order to be reunited with their children.

But is that a reasonable way to curtail illegal immigration?

"Separations from their parents, especially in moments of extreme distress and displacement, has very negative impact on child well being, mental health, and development," said Dr. Lisa Fortuna, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Boston Medical Center. As an expert on the impact of trauma on immigrant families, she submitted an amicus brief in the ACLU lawsuit.

"And I don't think that we want to be a society that does that to children," Fortuna said.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have some news now on how the Trump administration is pushing back against illegal immigration. The administration has for months talked about separating immigrant families at the border as a way of discouraging them from coming in the first place. A federal lawsuit filed on Monday says federal agents are increasingly doing that, and the idea has outraged activists. The plaintiff is an undocumented Congolese woman who's being detained in San Diego while her 7-year-old daughter is being held 2,000 miles away at a shelter in Chicago. NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has attempted to discourage asylum-seekers from coming to the U.S. Under Obama, they detained some unauthorized families in camps in South Texas rather than release them in the U.S. while their cases are heard. The Trump administration has gone even further. It has arrested immigrant parents in the U.S. who paid smugglers to bring their children across the border, and it wants to expand detention space. Now comes the most extreme measure yet, family separation.

LEE GELERNT: When the daughter was taken, she could hear her daughter in the next room screaming, Mommy, don't let them take me.

BURNETT: That's Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's National Immigrant Rights Project. He's representing a 39-year-old mother who traveled from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mexico with her 7-year-old daughter. They surrendered to immigration agents near San Diego in December. They said they were fleeing violence in Congo and asked for asylum. She's being held apart from her daughter. They're only able to speak by phone.

GELERNT: The child has become a pawn in a public policy move by the administration trying to deter other asylum-seekers.

BURNETT: A spokeswoman for Homeland Security declined to give a reason why the child was taken from her mother, saying only the agency does not comment on cases under litigation. The practice of separating undocumented families to discourage them from coming is not a formal stated policy of the administration, but immigrant activists say it's been quietly growing in frequency along the Southern border. Katharina Obser is with the Women's Refugee Commission.

KATHARINA OBSER: The increase in family separation is something that's being documented by organizations around the country. We started to hear about a noticeable increase of this practice in the summer.

BURNETT: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has documented 53 incidents of family separation in the last nine months, mostly Central Americans. They say they're fleeing rampant gang violence. But the administration believes most of them are gaming the system, and it wants to stop the flow, first, because the trek is dangerous for young children. And, second, Matt Al Bent's, an official with ICE removal operations, told NPR...

MATT ALBENCE: It's a huge operational problem. We have hundreds of thousands of these cases clogging up the immigration court docket. A vast majority of these individuals that get to this country and are served with a notice to appear in front of an immigration judge don't show up.

BURNETT: Immigration lawyers say the strategy could work. Mothers may drop their cases and go home to be reunited with their children. But is that a reasonable way to curtail illegal immigration? Dr. Lisa Fortuna, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Boston Medical Center, is an expert on the impact of trauma on immigrant families. She's submitting an amicus brief in the ACLU lawsuit.

LISA FORTUNA: Separations from their parents, especially in moments of extreme distress and displacement, has very negative impacts on a child's well-being, their mental health, their development. And I don't think that we want to be a society that does that to children.

BURNETT: The lawsuit claims that immigration agents violated the Congolese woman's constitutional right to due process. It asks the government, if it's going to detain a mother and child during the asylum process, at least allow them to be together. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.