February 26, 2018 / 4:59 PM / 20 days ago

Asylum seeker in detention sues U.S. administration over family separation

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Congolese woman seeking asylum in the United States for herself and her daughter sued the Trump administration on Monday, alleging that she and other immigrants in detention have been unfairly separated from their children.

A Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement bus is parked outside a federal jail in San Diego, October 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The 39-year-old woman, referred to in the lawsuit only as Ms. L, alleges she was detained in California after turning herself in to U.S. border guards at a port of entry near San Diego on Nov. 1, while her seven-year-old daughter was sent to government custody in Chicago.

“When the officers separated them, Ms. L. could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother,” the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in southern California said.

People seeking asylum in the United States are interviewed by an asylum officer, and if they are found to have credible fear of returning home, they can remain in the country to pursue their claims in immigration court.

Court challenges have led to limits on the amount of time children can be kept in immigration detention, and the government has often decided to release parents along with their children to await resolution of asylum cases.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has criticized the asylum process as rife with fraud. In a speech in October he said applicants are often helped by “dirty immigration lawyers” who urge them to file unwarranted asylum claims and provide “them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear process.”

The administration has floated the idea of separating families at the border in an attempt to deter their migration.

This month, a group of Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, saying the rationale for such a proposal “suggests a lack of understanding about the violence many families are fleeing.”

“This is not a one-off case,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union representing the woman who filed Monday’s action. “We are hearing there are dozens if not hundreds of cases around the country. And the Administration is threatening to do even more family separation.”

Gelernt said that some recent border crossers, potentially including asylum seekers, have been separated from their children after being criminally charged with illegally entering, or re-entering, the United States.

Without giving details about their specific asylum claim, the lawsuit said Ms. L. and her daughter hid in a Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo before deciding to risk a journey to the United States.

She explained to border officials in broken Spanish that she was seeking asylum and since then has been held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. Her daughter was transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which houses and places children that arrive on the border alone.

The two have only spoken a handful of times on the phone in four months, the lawsuit says.

It follows a separate suit filed last week by a New York civil rights group that challenged what it said was unfair and prolonged detention of immigrant children by the Trump administration.

Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Sue Horton and Susan Thomas

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