A vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego in June 2017. (Elliot Spagat/AP)

For nearly four months, immigration officials have unlawfully held a Congolese asylum seeker and her 7-year-old daughter in detention centers thousands of miles apart, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged in a lawsuit Monday.

The mother arrived with her child in San Diego in November and told border agents she left the Congo in fear for her life, according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

Several days after she passed a screening interview with an asylum officer, officials took her daughter from her “without justification or even a hearing” and sent her to a facility in Chicago, where she has remained since early November, the ACLU said.

The mother is being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. As her child was taken away, she “could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit accuses the U.S. government of violating the constitutional rights of the mother and daughter and calls for the pair to be reunited immediately, saying there was never any legitimate reason to separate them. A spokesman from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment Monday night.

The prolonged detention of a mother and daughter seeking asylum represents a shift in practices from the Obama administration, which, under federal court orders, adopted a policy of holding women and children together at family detention centers for no more than 21 days before releasing them.

As part of its broad crackdown on immigration, the Trump administration has weighed proposals to separate immigrant families and unaccompanied minors as they enter the country, although such measures have focused largely on illegal immigration from Central America, The Washington Post reported in December. To deter illegal border crossings, the administration has also specifically considered separating women and children who arrive together. Officials have yet to announce any formal policies.

Immigrant rights advocates argue such efforts are unconstitutional because they would separate immigrant parents from their children without a hearing, violating their due process rights. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the leading professional association of pediatricians, has also denounced the administration’s plans to separate families, saying the emotional and physical stress on children could be long-lasting.

The ACLU’s lawsuit offers few details about why the Congolese mother, identified only as “Ms. L.,” sought asylum in the United States with her daughter, identified as “S.S.” Court papers describe her as a 39-year-old Catholic woman who took shelter in a church for some time before escaping her home country “fearing near certain death.”

Catholics in the Congo have organized large public demonstrations over the past year against the country’s president, and some Catholic protesters have been killed by government security forces, but there is no indication in the lawsuit that Ms. L. was involved in such activities.

The mother and daughter’s native language is Lingala, which is spoken by several million people in Central Africa. When they arrived at the San Ysidro, Calif., Port of Entry on Nov. 1, they used the limited amount of Spanish they knew to explain to border agents that they sought asylum, according to the lawsuit.

An asylum officer conducted what’s known as a “credible fear interview” and determined that the mother “did have a significant possibility of ultimately receiving asylum and therefore allowed her to move on to the next stage,” ACLU attorneys wrote.

Ms. L. and S.S. spent their first four days in “some sort of motel,” the lawsuit says. Then immigration officials abruptly sent the 7-year-old to a Chicago facility operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, while the mother was detained in San Diego. There was no evidence or accusation that the child was abused or neglected, the lawsuit says.

The two have spoken a half-dozen times in the time since, according to the ACLU. The separation has weighed heavily on both of them. The mother is not eating or sleeping and the child is alone, their attorneys say.

“Each time S.S. is able to speak with her mother on the phone, she is crying,” the lawsuit reads. “Every day that S.S. is separated from her mother causes her greater emotional and psychological harm and could potentially lead to permanent emotional trauma.”

The mother should be eligible for parole while her asylum case proceeds because she passed her credible fear interview, her attorneys say. But under the San Diego ICE field office’s policies, only a specific directive from the agency can make that happen. If the mother and daughter are reunited, the lawsuit says, there are nongovernmental shelters that could house them, as well as government facilities specifically designed for families.

Read the lawsuit

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