Politics, Moderate



Why does the Department of Homeland Security refuse to reunite this mother and child?

By Rex Huppke, Tribune Content Agency on

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.

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."

I appreciate concerns about child trafficking, of course. Immigration officials have to do due diligence.

But that doesn't explain the case of the girl in Chicago. Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project and one of the attorneys representing the mother and child, said there has been no accusation that the two are unrelated and the mother isn't facing any allegation of abuse or neglect.

When they were separated, the mother was given no explanation.

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A source who has been helping the mother confirmed that she arrived in California without papers -- she's Catholic and was rushed out of Congo, formerly Zaire, with the help of a Catholic church there -- but is willing to take a blood test to prove she's the child's mother.

It doesn't sound to me like the government is concerned about the child's welfare. It sounds like the government is doing what White House Chief of Staff John Kelly suggested it might do early last year when he was in charge of Homeland Security -- separate families at the border in an effort to deter immigrants and asylum seekers.

In November, Jose Fuentes and his 1-year-old son, Mateo, arrived at the U.S. border with Mexico seeking asylum, citing the threat of gang violence in their native El Salvador. The father had his passport and Mateo's birth certificate -- documents viewed and confirmed by several news organizations who reported the story -- but Mateo was taken away to Texas while the father remained in detention in San Diego.

The child was held for three months before being returned to his mother, who entered the country with the family's other child, also seeking asylum. The father's asylum case is still pending, and he remains detained in San Diego.

Ashley Houghton, tactical campaigns manager at Amnesty International USA, told me: "We're very concerned that this could become official policy. But the other concern is that they just do it no matter what."

The Homeland Security spokesman said in his statement that we should view groups advocating for immigrants and asylum seekers with the skepticism they deserve.

I would argue that given President Donald Trump's harsh and hateful comments about immigrants, including his labeling of some African nations as "shithole countries," we should view the current administration with the skepticism it deserves.

That leads me to ask: How many other children like the 7-year-old in Chicago has our government separated from their parents?

And what kind of country are we if we allow this to happen?


(Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a noted hypocrisy enthusiast. You can email him at rhuppke@tribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @RexHuppke.)



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