Why is the United States separating asylum-seeking children from their parents? Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, has avoided answering this question, which makes a recent lawsuit by the ACLU so important and so necessary. The suit is based on the case of a Congolese woman and her 7-year-old daughter—identified in court papers as “Ms. L.” and “S.S.”—who fled the violence in their home country, traveled to Mexico, and then crossed into California last November, turning themselves in to border agents. Ms. L. was processed and detained in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in San Diego, while her child was torn away from her and taken to a different facility in Chicago—2,000 miles away. They were not brought before a judge or given a chance to be heard.
The case has rightly drawn public outrage, as well as a renewed focus on the Trump administration’s immigration policies. In a sense, Donald Trump is the great revelator: His vulgarity brings attention to practices that would otherwise have been hidden beneath a veneer of respectability. But, as it happens, the case of Ms. L. is not the first time that ICE has separated a child from his or her parents. This occasionally happened under the Obama administration, too, though immigrant-rights activists say there has been a noticeable and significant increase in the practice under Trump. The rationale that the Department of Homeland Security has offered for this horrendous practice is that there is a high risk of human trafficking at the border, and thus US officials need to ensure that a minor is indeed accompanied by his or her parent.
But if a concern for the safety of the child is foremost, then a simple DNA test could have established Ms. L.’s maternity, and the pair could have been kept in the same facility as they awaited the result of their hearing. Instead, S.S. was held in Chicago for more than four months. She spent her first Christmas in this country in detention, separated from her mother, in a strange, snowy city. It was only after the ACLU lawsuit drew nationwide attention that a DNA test was completed; it proved that Ms. L. was indeed S.S.’s mother. It’s important to note here that mother and daughter turned themselves over willingly to Customs and Border Protection agents when they arrived in the United States, because they wanted to prove to the authorities that they have a compelling claim to be granted asylum and should be able to remain in this country legally. In short, they did exactly what asylum seekers are supposed to do, and have been met with shocking cruelty.
Anti-immigration activists (or “restrictionists,” as they euphemistically call themselves these days) often argue that the arrival of undocumented immigrants is unfair to people who come here the legal way. But asylum seekers rarely have the leisure to file an application and wait months, or even years, for it to be processed. Civil wars, political assassinations, and religious persecutions are often unpredictable events, so it’s unreasonable to expect people to risk their lives and expose themselves to retaliation as they wait for the paperwork to be completed. The reality is that refugees flee their homeland first and look for asylum later, which is what Ms. L. and her daughter did.