Photo: Elliot Spagat (AP)

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class–action lawsuit against the U.S. government for separating immigrant parents from their children while the families seek asylum in the country.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in a Southern California district court, was prompted in part by the case of a 7–year–old Congolese girl separated from her mother four months ago. Legal advocates say they have documented 429 cases in which parents were separated from their children at the border, the Chicago Tribune reported.

These children range in age from toddlers to young teenagers, according to Michelle Brane, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. The ACLU argues that the forcible separations have “no legitimate reason” and violate due process and federal laws.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman responded to the lawsuit by claiming immigration officials have the right to separate families “to protect a child from potential smuggling and trafficking activities,” CNN reported. But Brane said that excuse doesn’t apply to any of the 429 cases the Women’s Refugee Commission highlighted in this case.

Two women are specifically mentioned in the lawsuit: “Ms. L.,” the Congolese mother who fled violence in her own country only to be detained near San Diego for months while her daughter was held in a Chicago facility; and “Ms. C.,” a Brazilian mother separated from her 14–year–old son last August. He also is held at a Chicago facility, while his mother is detained in Texas. For the past six months, they have spoken only infrequently by phone.

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Ms. L. was released earlier this week after the ACLU sued the government on her behalf. But Friday’s class–action lawsuit reflects what many observers had suspected: Ms. L.’s case wasn’t an isolated incident in Donald Trump’s America.

According to the latest lawsuit, as reported by the Tribune’s Rex Huppke, “Ms. C. is desperate to be reunited with her son, who has been having a difficult time emotionally since being separated from his mother. Ms. C. worries about him constantly and does not know when she will be able to see him. They have only spoken on the phone a handful of times since they were forcibly separated.”

“Whether or not the Trump administration wants to call this a ‘policy,’ it certainly is engaged in a widespread practice of tearing children away from their parents,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, according to CNN.

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In reporting on Ms. L.’s case, Huppke said he has reached out to Homeland Security officials to ask about the agency’s policy on separating immigrant families seeking asylum.

“[T]hey won’t tell me anything, which means there is no written protocol or there is one they don’t want the public to see,” he wrote in a recent op–ed.

He also noted that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who used to run Homeland Security before moving to a role at the White House, previously has admitted that he likes the idea of separating families as a deterrent for other migrants thinking of coming to the U.S.

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“That’s not how America should treat people, under any circumstances,” Huppke wrote. “It’s shameful. It’s cruel. And I’m embarrassed that my country is letting this happen.”