The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been separating families seeking asylum. That’s a fact. But while DHS claims it “does not currently have a policy of separating women and children,” it was doing it under former DHS Secretary John Kelly, and it continues under the watch of his successor, Kirstjen Nielsen:
A Congolese mother and her 7-year-old daughter have been reunited after being detained separately for more than four months. “Ms. L” had passed her initial asylum screening after fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, but rather than detain them together, officials separated them, detaining the mother in California and “S.S” in Illinois. “When the officers separated them,” the American Civil Liberties (ACLU) said at the time, “Ms. L. could hear her daughter in the next room screaming that she did not want to be taken away from her mother.”
The ACLU successfully sued for their release, but advocates have sounded the alarm that “Ms. L” and “S.S.” were in no way an isolated incident. According to Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program for the Women’s Refugee Commission, “at least 426 immigrant adults and children who had been separated by authorities since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.”
Now, after a coalition of Senate Democrats, led by Illinois’s Dick Durbin, wrote a letter calling on the DHS acting inspector general to investigate other allegations of family separation, there’s a positive development. According to CNN, acting Homeland Security Inspector General John V. Kelly (no relation to the White House chief of staff) “said his office has determined it will ‘conduct a review of this matter’ and requested a follow-up meeting to discuss it further.”
On the Congolese family, the senators wrote that “this is reportedly only one of many recent cases in which DHS has separated children from their parents who are seeking asylum … reports further indicate that DHS may soon formalize a policy of detaining children of asylum-seekers separately from their parents. This would be an unacceptable breach of our legal and humanitarian obligations to innocents who are fleeing war and terrorism.”
Additionally, the letter called for other answers that may be considered by the inspector general’s investigation:
[We] ask you to open an investigation that considers the following, among other issues:
1. The circumstances of the separation of the aforementioned mother and her seven-year-old child.
2. DHS policy on the separation of children of asylum seekers from their parents since January 20, 2017.
3. Implementation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of DHS policy on the separation of children of asylum seekers from their parents since January 2017, including any guidance, training, and oversight of ICE and CBP agents.
4. The number of children of asylum-seekers DHS has separated from a parent since January 20, 2017.
5. The average length of separation and the longest period of time a child has been separated.
6. The number of children of asylum-seekers who are currently detained separately from a parent.
Families should not be detained, period, but the American Association of Pediatrics has condemned the specific, traumatic practice of separating families in detention, stating that “pediatricians work to keep families together in times of strife because we know that in any time of anxiety and stress, children need to be with their parents, family members and caregivers.”
Monika Parikh, co-founder and executive director of Partnerships for Trauma Recovery, wrote that “one doesn’t need to be a physician or a psychologist to recognize that this practice is harmful to the mental and emotional well-being of asylum-seeking families. Parents who risk harrowing journeys to find safety in the U.S. deserve compassion, and ending family separation is a first step.”