Separating young Congolese refugee from her mother is wrong on so many levels

This morning I was reading Rex Hupke’s column in the Chicago Tribune, in which he relates the story of how a 7-year-old girl is being held at a facility in Chicago after being separated from her mother, an asylum-seeker from Congo.  This was the first time I had come across the story, and I wanted to learn more.

According to a Washington Post article, mother and daughter escaped their native country and arrived at the US border in San Diego in early November.  The refugees’ native language is Lingala, a widely-spoken African tongue, but they made their case to border agents in halting Spanish.  The mother is seeking protection in the United States because she feared for her life, having sought shelter in a church in Congo before arriving here.

Asylum-seekers must participate in a “credible fear” interview to determine whether they have a reasonable chance of being granted the right to stay.  The border officer conducting the interview found that the woman, identified as Ms. L., did have reasonable cause to believe her life would be in danger if she returned home.  Therefore, she was allowed to move on to the next step in the process.

Ms. L. and her child, referred to as S.S., spent their first days on US soil in what the Post calls “some sort of motel.”  Then, without explanation, the little girl, who was 6 at the time (she turned 7 while in custody), was sent to a facility operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement– in Chicago.  Ms. L., meanwhile, was transported to the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.

Ms. L.’s attorneys contend that, since she has a legitimate case for asylum, she should be able to be paroled.  Then she could be reunited with her daughter.  In order for her to be released, however, the San Diego ICE field office has to issue a specific directive toward that end.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit recently on the grounds that Ms. L. and her daughter are being denied due process, since the action to separate them was taken without a hearing.  The right to due process is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.  Authorities claim that there was no indication that the child was being abused or neglected.  It should stand to reason that there would be no justification for separating them.

The Post calls this case “a shift in practice from the Obama administration.”  During those years, women and children were allowed to stay together in detention centers, and were held for no more than 21 days.

In contrast, the way the Trump administration is handling this matter is seen as a crackdown on immigration.  Apparently, officials have been floating the idea of separating illegal immigrant parents from their children and keeping undocumented, unaccompanied minors from their families as a way of discouraging unauthorized border crossings.

First, if that’s what this is, “a crackdown on immigration,” it’s a poor strategy.  If the government wants to limit the number of people who come into the country, it should not allow them in in the first place.   Border officers should not give people clearance to be here, then treat them like criminals and even deny them their Constitutional rights.

Officials would also do well to keep in mind the difference between illegal immigrants and approved asylum-seekers.  While this woman did not obtain clearance to cross the border before arriving, she apparently met the initial criteria for potentially being granted asylum, and should therefore not have the same status as some one who tried to get past border agents and live under the radar in America without being caught, or someone who returned here illegally after being deported.

Second, she should not be denied due process.  The Constitution states that, “No person should be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime…without due process of law.”  The Fifth Amendment does not stipulate that this protection only applies to citizens or lawful residents; it simply states that “no person” shall be denied this right.

Third, it’s just inhumane.  It would be one thing to take the child away if there was evidence that she was being mistreated.  But to take her from her mother, without cause or explanation, and send her alone to a facility 2,000 miles away, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, is just wrong, especially considering she is so young.

If the government wants to limit immigration, it needs to pursue legal means to do so.  Either find ways to better enforce existing laws, or create addition statues that align with the Constitution– which, by the way, also bars cruel and unusual punishment– which many contend this case represents.  Perhaps we need to do a better job of turning undocumented people back at the border before they can cross it, or prohibiting them from staying once they’ve entered and gone through due process.

To go after an approved asylum-seeker and her young child to make a point about immigration, especially in a way that circumvents the law, is unacceptable.





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