In this June 9, 2017, file photo, a vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego. In a lawsuit filed Feb. 26, 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. government over what it calls the unlawful separation of a Congolese woman and her 7-year-old daughter who sought asylum.
Photo: Elliot Spagat, File (AP Images)

In an op-ed published Tuesday, the Washington Post drew attention to a case that highlights the cruelty and “tortured logic” of our country’s current immigration policies.

The case involves a mother who, fearing for her life and the life of her daughter, fled from the Congo to the United States. In November, as the Post previously reported, she and her 7-year-old child presented themselves to border agents in San Diego, where they passed a screening interview with an asylum officer.

However, days later, the daughter was forcibly taken from her mother and the two were placed in separate detention centers thousands of miles apart. The mother was detained in a center in San Diego; the daughter was shipped to a Chicago detention center, where she has been kept for the past four months.

Now the mother has been released, but she has yet to receive word on the status of her daughter, with whom she’s only had a few phone conversations since they were torn apart.


The stark details of the case—immigration authorities have never provided any real justification for separating the mother and child—prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government, charging that it violated the family’s constitutional rights. The suit also calls for the two to be reunited immediately.

Separating a family seeking refuge is the sort of bureaucratic cruelty that’s been the calling card of Donald Trump’s immigration policy (while Barack Obama’s track record on deportations is nothing to exalt, it was policy under his administration for women and children to be held together at detention centers). But as the Post’s op-ed pointed out, what makes this case and others like it particularly heinous is that immigration officials can’t get their stories straight about why they would separate parents from their child.

“A year ago, then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said publicly that his department might separate children from parents caught crossing the border, including those fleeing violence and seeking asylum, as a punitive means of deterring others who might follow,” the Post’s editorial board wrote, adding that Kelly’s successor, Kirstjen Nielsen, floated a similar idea again in December.


But DHS officials now claim that they would only separate minors from their parents for the child’s protection. In the case of the Congolese mother and the ACLU lawsuit, one DHS official told the Post in a statement that the department doesn’t “currently have a policy of separating women and children,” but noted that the department may do so, “particularly to protect a child from potential smuggling and trafficking activities.”

Of course, that clearly isn’t the case for the Congolese mother and her daughter—otherwise, why would the former have been released? For now, the administration is maintaining its silence on the matter, and the two still have no idea why they were separated, and whether they will be reunited.

“Each time S.S.”—the 7-year-old daughter—“is able to speak with her mother on the phone, she is crying,” reads the ACLU lawsuit. “Every day that S.S. is separated from her mother causes her greater emotional and psychological harm and could potentially lead to permanent emotional trauma.”