As It Happens

Trump administration sued for taking 'petrified' 7-year-old girl from asylum seeking mom

The ACLU alleges the U.S. government is using the Congolese family as "pawns" to warn other would-be refugees: "If you come to the U.S., you may lose your child."
The ACLU lawsuit on behalf of a Congolese asylum seeker separated from her daughter names several members and departments within the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, right. (The Associated Press)

Story transcript

A Congolese asylum seeker detained in the U.S. has struggled to eat and sleep ever since immigration officials forcibly took her seven-year-old daughter and sent her to a facility 3,200 kilometres away, says her lawyer.

"She heard her daughter in the next room screaming, 'Mommy, Mommy, don't let them take me away,''" Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

I think the administration's hope is that the word will get around the world that if you come to the U.S., you may lose your child or be separated for a long time.- Lee  Gelernt , ACLU

The mother and daughter entered the U.S. together in California on Nov. 1, 2017, and turned themselves in to U.S. officials.

Initially, the two were kept together. But several days after they entered the country, the child was taken away, according to a lawsuit filed by the ALCU in federal court.

The woman is being held at a detention centre in San Diego, while her daughter is being held in a facility for unaccompanied minor children in Chicago.

The Congolese woman is being held at the Otay Mesa detention centre in San Diego, Calif., while her daughter is held 3,200 kilometres away in Chicago. (Elliot Spagat/Associated Press)

The ACLU is asking that the woman and her daughter be released to a shelter that serves asylum seekers from African countries or be placed together in a family detention centre run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

'Pawns in some sort of public policy experiment'

Gelernt said the ACLU has heard of hundreds of similar cases from people who work in detention centres. 

"I think the administration's hope is that the word will get around the world that if you come to the U.S., you may lose your child or be separated for a long time," Gelernt said.

Trump has not announced a formal policy to hold adult asylum seekers separately from their children, but the administration has previously floated the idea of dividing families at the border in an attempt to deter their migration.

"The administration should not be deterring asylum seekers under any circumstances, and certainly should not be doing it to use these children as pawns in some sort of public policy experiment," he said.

Mother doesn't understand, says ACLU 

The mother, who speaks little English and has "a very limited understanding" of U.S. immigration proceedings, had no idea why or where her child was being taken when they were first separated, Gelernt said.

The two have spoken around six times by phone since their separation.

"She's terrified and every time she speaks to her daughter, the daughter is crying. And, amazingly, the daughter is asking her, 'How are you doing, Mommy, in prison?'" Gelernt said.

"The daughter is not just petrified for herself, but worried about her mother."

ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt says reuniting the mother and daughter is the organization's top priority. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The woman is not a flight risk, the lawsuit argues, and stands a good chance of being accepted in to the U.S. as a refugee.

She passed the initial screening to determine if she had a "credible fear" of returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the lawsuit said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it does not comment on pending litigation.

In a separate ACLU case Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detained immigrants going through deportation proceedings are not entitled to bond hearings every six months.

The ruling could lead to indefinite detentions of certain classes of immigrants.

- With files from Associated Press and Reuters

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