Six families that endured lasting emotional and physical suffering seek compensation for the federal government’s intentional infliction of trauma
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Six asylum-seeking mothers and their children who were torn apart under the Trump administration’s family separation policy filed legal claims today against the United States government seeking monetary compensation for the cruel treatment and agonizing trauma they have suffered at the hands of U.S. immigration agencies. The government intentionally subjected these six parents and their children, who were as young as five, to extraordinary trauma that will have life-long implications.
Each claimant seeks $3 million from the government for its intentional infliction of emotional distress. The claims, filed with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, detail the excruciating suffering that these mothers and children experienced as a result of the administration’s intentional policy to separate migrant families upon entering the U.S. — a policy that senior government officials have confirmed was designed to deter migrants from seeking refuge here.
In their claims, the mothers describe the harrowing circumstances in which immigration officers ripped their children away from them. The mothers uniformly describe receiving no information as to where their children were taken and were provided few-to-no updates on the whereabouts of their children for much of their separation, which lasted months in some cases. They were left in agony, with no idea whether they would ever see their children again.
“It was the worst moment of my life, when officers tore my crying daughter from my arms. I didn’t know where she was going or when I’d see her next — and I couldn’t tell her she’d be safe. It was four months and one day until I saw her again,” said Leticia, one of the claimants. “During those months, I couldn’t sleep or eat because for much of the time I had no information about where they had taken her, who she was with or how she was being treated. My daughter is not the same. To this day, if she drops something at home, she cries and begs me not to get mad at her or hit her. It breaks my heart to think of what she endured and how it has changed my beautiful, happy baby girl. We came to the U.S. because we feared for our lives in Guatemala, but rather than offering us safety, the U.S. government has scarred my daughter and me for life.”
The children in all six families suffered similar trauma and continue to experience nightmares and severe anxiety. A few examples include:
- A seven-year-old girl still unable to sleep unless her mother holds her.
- A seven-year-old boy blames his mother for allowing immigration officials to separate them and refuses to go to school for fear that he will be separated from his mother again.
- A six-year-old boy separated from his mother for more than two months refuses to talk about his time in a New York shelter and is reluctant to eat.
- A thirteen-year-old boy is unable to speak much with his mother about their separation or his time in detention and experiences outbursts of inexplicable anger.
- A twelve-year-old boy still has nightmares about his experience and describes the months-long separation as “the worst thing that has ever happened.”
The mothers experienced similar symptoms, including insomnia, loss of appetite, chronic headaches, excruciating chest pains, dramatic weight and hair loss, and symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to experts who examined them. Many continue to experience severe anxiety and other harmful effects.
The families filing claims are represented by Arnold & Porter; Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin; the American Immigration Council; and the National Immigrant Justice Center.
“These children and their parents have experienced horrific, life-altering trauma that was intentionally inflicted on them by our government,” said Stanton Jones, a partner at Arnold & Porter. “All of these families fled threatening and violent circumstances in their countries of origin only to face cruel treatment by detention officials and separation across thousands of miles. No amount of money can undo the damage inflicted by our government on these children and their mothers, but the government must be held accountable for the impact of its policies.”
“Separation from caregivers is terrifying and traumatic for a child. We have seen and heard from children who were separated from their caregivers and detained at the border, crying inconsolably,” said Dr. Minal Giri, chair of the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Refugee Immigrant Child Health Initiative. “Separation and the resulting fear and trauma cause toxic stress, and this can have lasting impact on a child’s developing brain. It puts children at risk for developmental delays, regression and emotional problems. Long-term research has tied this level of toxic stress in children to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses as adults.”
“The federal government inflicted distress on parents and children seeking asylum with the expectation that other families would be deterred from trying to seek refuge in this country,” said Trina Realmuto, directing attorney for the American Immigration Council. “The purpose of our immigration laws is to protect asylum seekers and reunify families, not tear them apart.”
“These cases are horrifying because the federal government made a decision that it wanted to harm children to accomplish its policy goals,” said Jonathan Feinberg, a partner at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin. “It is unthinkable that federal officials would do so. It is also unlawful.”
“In addition to just compensation for our clients, we hope these claims will serve as a reminder to both the current administration and future government officials that this can never happen again,” said Mark Fleming, the National Immigrant Justice Center’s associate director of litigation.
In total, the U.S. government has admitted to separating more than 2,700 children from their parents or guardians after they crossed the southwestern U.S. border. Recent reports indicate that the number of families separated may have been much higher.
Maria Frausto, American Immigration Council, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-507-7526
Tara Tidwell Cullen, National Immigrant Justice Center, email@example.com, 312-833-2967, 312-660-1337
Cal Barnett-Mayotte, Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-925-4400
Justine Sessions, Arnold & Porter, email@example.com, 202-331-1002
The American Immigration Council works to strengthen America by shaping how America thinks about and acts toward immigrants and immigration and by working toward a more fair and just immigration system that opens its doors to those in need of protection and unleashes the energy and skills that immigrants bring. The Council brings together problem solvers and employs four coordinated approaches to advance change—litigation, research, legislative and administrative advocacy, and communications. Follow the latest Council news and information on ImmigrationImpact.com and Twitter @immcouncil.
The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. Visit immigrantjustice.org and follow @NIJC.