In November 2017, a 39-year-old woman arrived in the United States after fleeing with her daughter from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Ms. L.” (as she would later become known in court documents) made it all the way to the US-Mexico border and there, as is her lawful right, pleaded for asylum. She cleared a so-called “credible fear” interview establishing that she was legitimately afraid of persecution if returned to her home country. But her troubles were far from over.
A few days after their arrival in the United States, Ms. L.’s then-6-year-old daughter was taken from her by immigration officials. Her daughter was soon transferred to a Chicago facility, while Ms. L. remained locked up in San Diego at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. The two have been separated for four months and have spoken only a handful of times by phone. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government over these practices in late February. “When the officers separated them, Ms. L. could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother,” the ACLU complaint reads.
The government’s separation of parents from their children, the ACLU argued, violated asylum laws as well as the due-process rights of Ms. L. and her daughter. In early March, after a public outcry, Ms. L. was abruptly released, but her daughter remains in custody. It’s still unclear when or even if they’ll be reunited.
Ms. L.’s story is not unique. For more than a year, the Trump administration has discussed adopting, as official policy, the practice of separating parents from their children. “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up from Mexico,” said John Kelly, then head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), speaking on CNN in March 2017.
There was perhaps even a hint of compassion in Kelly’s remarks. But snatching a child away from her mother’s arms in order to discourage others from attempting the same journey is undeniably cruel. And while this practice affects a small minority of the people subject to immigration enforcement—these are the freshest of newcomers and not yet among the estimated 11 million undocumented people already in the country—it is deeply representative of how the Trump administration treats immigrants and other marginalized populations.
Yes, there is Trump’s rhetoric: We all remember the “shithole countries” remark. He also recited a hateful anti-immigrant fable at the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference involving a menacing snake that kills a kindhearted woman. And he has repeatedly delivered speeches portraying immigrants as bloodthirsty gang members. Very often, when he does speak about immigrants, he speaks only about the MS-13 gang. “[Gang members] have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” Trump said last summer. “They’re animals.” His racist animus toward immigrants is one of the few subjects on which he can string together coherent sentences.