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To Curb Illegal Immigration, DHS Separating Families At The Border

Immigrants make their way towards the border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico.
Gregory Bull
Immigrants make their way towards the border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico.

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.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.