ACLU seeks damages for migrant families separated by U.S.

A new lawsuit against current and former top Trump administration officials who oversaw and implemented policies that led to the separation of migrant families near the U.S.-Mexico border is seeking potentially millions of dollars in damages on behalf of thousands of parents and children.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is asking the U.S. district court in Arizona — a border state where many of the migrants were initially detained and separated — to award damages to thousands of migrant families who have been separated by the U.S. government since 2017. The group, arguably the administration’s most formidable foe in court, is also seeking the creation of a fund to cover health services for families still traumatized by the separations.

“Although separated families can never be made whole, justice requires redress for their suffering. Plaintiffs now seek that justice for themselves and other families like them,” the ACLU said in its lawsuit, which was filed on Thursday.

Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody on June 12, 2018, near McAllen, Texas. John Moore / Getty

The ACLU named present and past high-ranking officials at the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department as defendants in the lawsuit. The organization accused them of violating the rights of migrants by depriving them of due process, failing to provide traumatized parents and children adequate health services and subjecting families to “punitive” treatment through often prolonged separations.

Although some detained migrant families were separated under previous administrations — mostly when officials determined the parents posed a danger to their children — the Trump administration utilized different tools, including the discontinued policy of “zero tolerance” that led to the criminal prosecutions of border-crossing parents, to systemically separate thousands of families in the span of months. 

After massive public outcry, Judge Dana Sabraw U.S. District of Southern California ordered the administration in June 2018 to halt the controversial practice of forcibly separating detained migrant parents from their children. Sabraw decreed that families should not be separated “absent a determination that the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.”

According to figures disclosed through litigation, more than 2,800 children were separated from their parents as of late 2018, while nearly 1,000 minors were separated after Sabraw’s ruling. In its filing on Thursday, the ACLU said that more recent disclosures in litigation suggest that there are an additional 2,000 children who were separated that the government has not identified by name to the court. 

Although it listed five families as the plaintiffs, the ACLU in its latest class action lawsuit asked for relief for all children and parents who were separated by the U.S. government since 2017. 

The filing recounts the separation of a Guatemalan mother from her two young sons after they were apprehended in May 2018. Soon after their arrival at a Border Patrol detention center, the filing alleges, an officer approached the mother, telling her that her children “would be taken from her” and giving her five minutes to say goodbye.

“The boys began to cry uncontrollably and hugged (their mother) tight, desperate to stay with her,” the lawsuit reads. 

The family reunited seven weeks after they were separated and were granted asylum in May of this year. According to the ACLU, the family continues to suffer trauma as a result of the separation.

“The younger boy, struggles with being apart from his mother for even brief periods; he is often sad and cries much more than he previously did; and he can no longer sleep or bathe alone,” the filing says. “(The older boy) shows his trauma by acting out in anger, anger that was uncharacteristic before the separation.”

In another case featured in the lawsuit, a Guatemalan father spent five months separated from his five-year-old daughter, who lost her ability to speak and understand their native Mam, a language of Mayan origins. The two reunited in Guatemala — where the father had been deported — but the girl has since struggled to communicate with her mother, who only speaks Mam. 

One mother who fled violence and threats of kidnapping in El Salvador was separated from her 15-year-old daughter for about 16 months. According to the ACLU, the mother and daughter sought asylum at port near Nogales, Arizona, in late 2017 and were detained for a few days until being separated on Christmas morning.

“(The mother) was given no opportunity to say goodbye to her daughter,” the filing says. 

According to the filing, the Salvadoran mother was erroneously told that asylum was no longer an option for adults from her country. Out of desperation, she consented to her removal in front of a judge in March and was deported soon after. 

After more than a year apart, the family reunited in the U.S., where they are now seeking asylum. But the ACLU said the 15-year-old daughter now suffers from depression and anxiety — and at one point became suicidal. 

“In a contemporaneous journal entry, (the daughter) wrote that even though she knew her mom loved her, she wanted to kill herself,” the filing reads. 

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