Tag Archives: family separation

The ACLU, Chuck E. Cheese and The Trump Administration

I cried reading the New York Times last Sunday.

It was an article titled “Can the ACLU become the NRA of the left?”

I spent six years as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU affiliate, and took a great deal of pride in the organization’s nonpolitical bona fides. (As the only Republican Executive Director at the time, I was particularly supportive of that nonpartisanship.) The Times article focused upon the organization’s determined, effective–and very political– opposition to Trump.

If Trump didn’t pose an obvious and existential threat to civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law, I would be distressed.

It was the description of a family separation case that made me cry.

Nearly a year ago, fearing for their lives, Ms. L. and her daughter, S., who was 6 at the time, fled their small village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A group of nuns gave them money and food and helped them flee the country. For the next several months, they slept outside most nights or sometimes on the floors of empty buildings they had been pointed to along their route north toward the United States. They cleaned themselves as much as possible in public restrooms. They scavenged for discarded food from restaurants. When they finally presented themselves at the crossing in San Diego, Ms. L. saw the American flag and told her daughter they were going to be O.K.: “We have arrived.”

This was on Nov. 1, 2017 — months before the government denied it was separating children from their families, then said it was only families who were caught crossing the border illegally, then announced it was all part of a zero-tolerance policy. Ms. L. entered legally at the port of entry at San Diego. In broken Spanish she had picked up along the way, she told the border agents she was seeking asylum in the United States. The Border Patrol referred her to ICE, and after four days in temporary housing, ICE agents met with her and S. and asked the girl to go with a guard into another room. Once she was gone, they handcuffed Ms. L., who hadn’t committed a crime. She listened to her daughter beyond the door, screaming and pleading with the guards not to take her away. S. was transported immediately to a facility for unaccompanied minors in Chicago. Ms. L. was detained in California with roughly 1,500 other detainees.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 17, an asylum officer conducted what ICE calls a “credible-fear screening” and determined that Ms. L.’s story met the “credibility threshold,” which would normally mean she could enter the country legally and live with her daughter in a shelter while she awaited a full asylum hearing. Instead, months went by, mother and daughter 2,000 miles apart, each in a place where no one else spoke their native Lingala. Ms. L. and S. spoke five or six times by phone, but the conversations were torturous for Ms. L., with S. sobbing on the phone and telling her mother how scared she was and her mother having no idea if she would ever see her again. “Chicago meant nothing to her,” Gelernt told me. “It might as well have been on the moon.”

In late January, Ms. L. appeared before an immigration judge without an attorney present. She hadn’t seen S. for nearly three months and was consumed with worry and despair. After questioning her, the judge ordered Ms. L. to be removed from the United States. Confused by what was being asked of her, she waived her right to contest her removal. When she returned to the detention center and recounted what happened, another detainee asked, “What have you done?” and explained that she was going to be sent to Congo. Ms. L. begged her fellow detainee to write a letter to the judge on her behalf. “Please don’t send me back,” she said. “I will be killed there.”

The Times article has much more detail–and I hope everyone will read all of it. The  ACLU represented the mother.

Here’s the paragraph that made me cry:

The next night, after I left, they were reunited in the shelter. I’ve spoken with Gelernt several times about the moment of their reunion, what he called the most emotional thing he’d experienced in 25 years of doing immigration work. Ms. L. stood near him waiting for her daughter on a worn marble staircase just inside the shelter’s front door. When the door swung open, she crouched and stretched her arms wide. S. stepped through the doorway and saw her, and the most beautiful smile spread over the girl’s face, Gelernt said. She toppled forward, and Ms. L. gathered her in her arms and fell back onto the marble stairs. The look on her face as she held her daughter was almost too emotional to witness. For the next minute they lay there, clinging to each other and rocking from side to side. The only sound in the hall was a low, rhythmic moan, punctuated by S.’s higher-pitched cry.

A federal court gave the administration thirty days to reunite parents with the 2000+ children it holds. The administration wants more time–because they can’t figure out who belongs with whom.

Which brings me to Chuck E. Cheese.

Chuck E. Cheese was after my parenting time, but my son and daughter-in-law assure me that the chain–which evidently makes its money from children’s parties–has a simple security protocol (“Kid check“) that ensures parents will leave with the children they brought.

Chuck E. Cheese can do what the incompetent Trump administration can’t.

It’s a meme for our time.