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We have some news now on how the Trump administration is pushing back against illegal immigration. The administration has for months talked about separating immigrant families at the border as a way of discouraging them from coming in the first place. A federal lawsuit filed on Monday says federal agents are increasingly doing that, and the idea has outraged activists. The plaintiff is an undocumented Congolese woman who's being detained in San Diego while her 7-year-old daughter is being held 2,000 miles away at a shelter in Chicago. NPR's John Burnett has the story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has attempted to discourage asylum-seekers from coming to the U.S. Under Obama, they detained some unauthorized families in camps in South Texas rather than release them in the U.S. while their cases are heard. The Trump administration has gone even further. It has arrested immigrant parents in the U.S. who paid smugglers to bring their children across the border, and it wants to expand detention space. Now comes the most extreme measure yet, family separation.
LEE GELERNT: When the daughter was taken, she could hear her daughter in the next room screaming, Mommy, don't let them take me.
BURNETT: That's Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's National Immigrant Rights Project. He's representing a 39-year-old mother who traveled from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mexico with her 7-year-old daughter. They surrendered to immigration agents near San Diego in December. They said they were fleeing violence in Congo and asked for asylum. She's being held apart from her daughter. They're only able to speak by phone.
GELERNT: The child has become a pawn in a public policy move by the administration trying to deter other asylum-seekers.
BURNETT: A spokeswoman for Homeland Security declined to give a reason why the child was taken from her mother, saying only the agency does not comment on cases under litigation. The practice of separating undocumented families to discourage them from coming is not a formal stated policy of the administration, but immigrant activists say it's been quietly growing in frequency along the Southern border. Katharina Obser is with the Women's Refugee Commission.
KATHARINA OBSER: The increase in family separation is something that's being documented by organizations around the country. We started to hear about a noticeable increase of this practice in the summer.
BURNETT: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has documented 53 incidents of family separation in the last nine months, mostly Central Americans. They say they're fleeing rampant gang violence. But the administration believes most of them are gaming the system, and it wants to stop the flow, first, because the trek is dangerous for young children. And, second, Matt Al Bent's, an official with ICE removal operations, told NPR...
MATT ALBENCE: It's a huge operational problem. We have hundreds of thousands of these cases clogging up the immigration court docket. A vast majority of these individuals that get to this country and are served with a notice to appear in front of an immigration judge don't show up.
BURNETT: Immigration lawyers say the strategy could work. Mothers may drop their cases and go home to be reunited with their children. But is that a reasonable way to curtail illegal immigration? Dr. Lisa Fortuna, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Boston Medical Center, is an expert on the impact of trauma on immigrant families. She's submitting an amicus brief in the ACLU lawsuit.
LISA FORTUNA: Separations from their parents, especially in moments of extreme distress and displacement, has very negative impacts on a child's well-being, their mental health, their development. And I don't think that we want to be a society that does that to children.
BURNETT: The lawsuit claims that immigration agents violated the Congolese woman's constitutional right to due process. It asks the government, if it's going to detain a mother and child during the asylum process, at least allow them to be together. John Burnett, NPR News.
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