Why does the Department of Homeland Security refuse to reunite this mother and child?
There is a girl being detained in Chicago who shouldn't be here.
She's 7. She and her mother fled Congo and arrived in Southern California in November seeking asylum. They followed all the rules, passed an initial screening that found they have a strong case for asylum, and then were separated with no explanation. The mother remained at an immigration facility in San Diego -- and the child was taken 2,000 miles away.
Four months later, she remains here. And now I'm wondering if there are more children like her being held in Chicago or other places in the country, children who came seeking safety only to be ripped apart from their families because our government wants to send a bullying message to the world: Stay away.
Late Friday, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, responding to an initial column I wrote about the girl, sent a joint letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security urging her "to immediately reunite this child with her mother."
Per the letter: "This is reportedly only one of many recent cases in which DHS has separated the children of asylum-seekers from their parents. ... This would be an unacceptable breach of our legal and humanitarian obligations to innocents who are fleeing war and terrorism."
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the mother and child and on Friday filed an injunction asking a judge to reunite the two. Homeland Security officials have said they can't comment on pending litigation, and initially the department refused to answer even general questions about DHS policy regarding asylum seekers.
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Over the weekend, the department's acting press secretary, Tyler Houlton, finally sent me a statement: "DHS does not currently have a policy of separating women and children. However, we retain the authority to do so in certain circumstances -- particularly to protect a child from potential smuggling and trafficking activities."
The statement went on to say that due to "numerous intelligence reports and cases where kids have been used and trafficked by unrelated adults in an effort to avoid detention" the government has to "ensure the child is not a victim of trafficking and they are with a bona fide parent or legal guardian."
"If we are unable to confirm this relationship we must take steps to protect the child, which may result in placing them with HHS as an unaccompanied child," Houlton wrote in the statement, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services.
He concluded: "We ask that members of the public and media view advocacy group claims that we are separating women and children for reasons other than to protect the child with the level of skepticism they deserve."