No reasonable person would consider taking a first-grader away from the comfort of her mother, shipping her 2,000 miles away, and only allowing them to interact a few times via phone for months.

Yet, in a callous, calculated and totally heartless effort to deter illegal immigration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have been doing just that, with absolutely no repercussions.

Last November, a Congolese mother and her seven-year-old daughter came to the U.S. seeking asylum from violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mother Ms. L, as she is called in a lawsuit that documents the case, was detained in Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, CA by ICE. After a few days in detention, the mother said, authorities took her child away inexplicably.

Despite Ms. L being completely coherent and responsible, her daughter, S.S., was placed over 2,000 miles away in a Chicago detention center for “unaccompanied” minors. The mother and daughter have only been able to talk a few times over the phone, according to the ACLU. Ms. L was released earlier this month, but her child remains forcibly detained thousands of miles away.

The ACLU launched a lawsuit against the U.S. Government on Feb. 26 for violating Ms. L’s constitutional right to due process when her child was taken away. It also asks the federal judge to declare family separation unlawful.

Dividing families is not, and should not be, policy. Ms. L and S.S. are being stripped of their natural born and internationally sanctioned rights to family unity. And they’re not the only ones.

U.S. immigration has become more volatile under the Trump administration. The administration crossed yet another line when it announced it would consider a policy that separates immigrant parents from their children as a way to deter illegal immigration back in December.

What’s worse, parents are often permanently separated from their children when both are held in separate detention centers for long enough for the state to pursue the termination of parental rights — a law that allows this termination after 15-22 months of parental absence.

Damaged by a heartless anti-immigration policy, families of asylum seekers are torn apart — parents are often held in separate detention centers than their children and are sometimes permanently separated from them.
Illustration by Anna León

It’s not just about policy. It’s about people. People are fleeing socially, economically and environmentally unstable regions — only to be imprisoned in U.S. detention centers.

There have been at least 420 immigrant adults and children separated since President Donald Trump took office, said Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice program for the Women’s Refugee Commission to Associated Press. Brané said her office is receiving far more reports of adults, who are being held in ICE facilities, who don’t know where their children are.

The only legal reason for a child to be forcibly removed from their parent is when there is significant evidence of abuse or neglect, however immigration lawyers have reported many cases of family members “disappearing,” often being sent to detention centers far way and denied resources such as access to phones and legal assistance.

While the ACLU lawsuit cannot help the hundreds who may have been traumatized by this separation, it has the potential to prevent future harm.

Lisa R. Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center and psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience working with vulnerable populations, including immigrants and trauma survivors, submitted an amicus brief in the ACLU lawsuit.

Fortuna documented severe, sometimes irreparable, mental health effects in “children asylum seekers” who are separated from a parent or primary family member. Some effects include anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress, maladaptive behaviors and an inability to operate outside of “survivor mode.”

“I don’t think that we want to be a society that does that to children,” Fortuna said to NPR.

This policy, formal or informal, is causing long-lasting damage to young children as a way to boost approval ratings and strike fear into families seeking safety and opportunity in the U.S. It’s unacceptable, inhumane and unjust. But family separation is only one of many reasons to be outraged, and it seems the U.S. government is seeking to expand its dangerous immigration obsession.

Immigration arrests are up 43 percent under Trump. More and more detention centers, many of which are privately owned, are being proposed. And because the U.S. has over 650,000 pending immigration cases, undocumented immigrants may be detained for years before their day in court.

Luckily, advocates are taking to the courts to stop some of these injustices. In addition, to the ACLU lawsuit, a coalition of immigrant advocacy organizations filed a report condemning ICE’s use of family separation. And last month, 75 congressional Democrats sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen scrutinizing family separation as unlawful.

Immigration to the U.S. is not going away, and is in fact the basis of our country. The outright cruel treatment of immigrants doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon, in response we must condemn these injustices in every arena we can.

In the ACLU lawsuit, it is crucial the courts rule to protect due process for undocumented families and outlaw family separation. As a community, we must commit to staying informed on immigration injustices and insisting that these heinous and heartbreaking policies, however contentious they may be, are consistently rejected by the people.