The ACLU on Friday filed a national class-action lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's practice of "forcibly separating" asylum-seeking young children from their parents on behalf of "hundreds of individuals whose minor children have already been taken from them."
"Whether or not the Trump administration wants to call this a 'policy,' it certainly is engaged in a widespread practice of tearing children away from their parents."
—Lee Gelernt, ACLU
The lawsuit is an expansion of an existing case involving a Congolese woman and her 7-year-old daughter. While the mother was released from federal custody in San Diego, California after the suit was filed, her child remains detained in a Chicago facility 2,000 miles away. The legal advocacy group says this is common for families seeking asylum in the United States.
The expanded suit outlines the shared experiences of these parents: "all came to the United States with their children and were subsequently detained; all have since been separated from their children without any allegation or showing that they present a danger to their child; none have been given a fair process in which to contest any allegations that they are an unfit parent."
The Associated Press noted that "the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not announced a formal policy to hold adult asylum seekers separately from their children. But administration officials have said they are considering separating parents and children to deter others from trying to enter the U.S."
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said that "whether or not the Trump administration wants to call this a 'policy,' it certainly is engaged in a widespread practice of tearing children away from their parents."
"A national class-action lawsuit is appropriate," he added, "because this is a national practice."
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The Houston Chronicle explained how the Trump administration's efforts to prosecute adults for illegally crossing the border has contributed to the problem:
Usually migrant parents and minor children are held together or released to await their cases in the backlogged civil immigration courts. But the government began ramping up criminal prosecutions of parents last summer, forcing the removal of their children who cannot be kept in prison. That enables the government to sidestep a 20-year-old federal settlement barring the prolonged detention of children and ruling they should be kept with their parents.... The Houston Chronicle in November identified 22 cases in which migrant parents with no history of immigration violations were prosecuted for the misdemeanor crime of illegal entry and had their children removed.
Michelle Brané, director of the Women Refugee Commission's migrant rights and justice program, told the AP that since President Donald Trump took office early last year, she has identified at least 426 immigrant adults and children who have been forcibly separated by government officials.
"A lot of these kids are already afraid because they're fleeing something and they know they're fleeing something," she pointed out. "And to have them pulled away, that can be devastating for a parent."
While Homeland Security declined to comment on the class-action suit Friday, the department said in court filngs on Wednesday that officials—citing human trafficking concerns—were awaiting DNA results to confirm the biological relationship between the Congolese woman and 7-year old girl before releasing the child from the facility in Chicago.