DALLAS - A Congolese woman at the centre of a lawsuit accusing the U.S. government of unlawfully separating her from her 7-year-old daughter after they crossed the California-Mexico border seeking asylum was released Tuesday, an official with the American Civil Liberties Union said.
The woman was released from a detention centre in San Diego under orders coming "from up top" in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. The child, however, remains about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres) away from her mother in a Chicago facility, he said.
Efforts on Wednesday will shift toward obtaining the girl's release and reuniting her with her mother, Gelernt said. The ACLU also will continue to litigate the lawsuit filed Feb. 26 in federal court in San Diego seeking relief for other immigrant parents separated from their minor children, he said.
"There remain many other families who have been separated, and we will continue to attack this horrific family separation practice," Gelernt said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the woman's release and the status of her child. However, Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton said in a social media post Sunday that the public should be skeptical of advocacy group claims that parents and their children are being separated for reasons other than protecting the child.
The woman is from a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and speaks little English. She passed the initial screening to determine if she had a "credible fear" of returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the lawsuit said. The ACLU has withheld the identities of the woman and child citing potential danger if they are denied asylum and returned to Congo.
The mother and daughter entered the U.S. together in California in November and turned themselves into U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. Initially, the two were kept together, but about five days after they entered the country the child was taken away "screaming and crying, pleading with guards not to take her away from her mother," according to the lawsuit.
The ACLU said the family's case is one example of the practice of President Donald Trump's administration to target immigrant families who are seeking asylum through processes established under U.S. law. Trump has not announced a formal policy to hold adult asylum seekers separately from their children, but top administration officials have said they believe the asylum process is overwhelmed and challenged by people making frivolous claims.
The U.S. government is bound to release immigrant children from custody if possible and otherwise hold children in the "least restrictive setting" available, according to a 1997 settlement that ended a long-running lawsuit over the treatment of immigrant children. It was reiterated in later court rulings as well.
The Trump administration has called for ending the settlement as part of its demands for changes to immigration laws.
Under previous administrations, immigration authorities charged thousands of people with illegally entering or re-entering the U.S., holding them in jail and at times separating them from their children. But Gelernt and other immigrant advocates say the Trump administration is detaining more adults seeking asylum and separating them from their children than in previous years.
Advocates have also accused border agents of unlawfully turning away people who are seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.