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More families seek damages for harm suffered due to Trump administration’s family separations

After seeking asylum from Guatemala at a port of entry in 2017, M.C.L. and his 7-year-old son spent two days in various cells where the temperature was kept extremely cold, with only a thin blanket and a single mattress to share.

The father and son held each other tightly and cried themselves to sleep at night. Eventually, officers with chains and handcuffs entered their cell. The father and son were ordered into an office, where an officer stood on each side of M.C.L., grabbed his arms, and forced him down onto a bench. Watching this scene unfold, the boy – who had been warned that he would be separated from his father – cried desperately.

Feeling hopeless and frustrated, M.C.L. slapped his hands down on the bench. An officer told him that if he didn’t calm down, they would put the handcuffs on him. Hunched over, feeling powerless, he heard his son crying in despair until the boy’s cries became so distant that he could not hear them anymore.

Eventually, M.C.L. was deported, and his son was left behind in U.S. government custody, crying incessantly every day. The boy still suffers from the emotional trauma he suffered during a nearly eight-month separation from his father.

M.C.L. is one of three fathers forcibly separated from their young children at the border who filed administrative claims this week against the United States. The fathers are seeking compensation for the lasting harm caused by the Trump administration’s family separations.

The SPLC and its partner, Covington & Burling, filed the claims on behalf of the families, who will continue to suffer damage to their mental, physical and emotional health for years to come.

“Thousands of children, parents and entire families will suffer the rest of their lives as a result of this administration’s intentionally cruel family separations,” said Michelle Lapointe, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC. “The government separated families with a full understanding of the extent of the unspeakable impact this would have on the victims, including vulnerable children. This administration did so not in spite of the harm it would cause, but because of it, and now the government must be held accountable. This is particularly important as we continue to receive reports of unjustified and illegal separations of families at the border, well after the practice supposedly ended.”

The filings detail the cruelty of both the practice of family separation and the treatment of these families while in federal custody. As has been well-documented, the intent of the family separations was to deter future migrants by deliberately subjecting immigrants in custody to harsh conditions that would ensure their suffering. The dehumanization of these families and other migrants is evident in the accounts of their treatment while in custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Forcible parent-child separations have long been known to cause significant short- and long-term damage to mental, physical, and emotional health. Still, in the name of deterrence, the government indiscriminately tore immigrant children from their parents, sent the children thousands of miles away, refused to inform parents and children of each other’s whereabouts or well-being, refused to provide adequate means for parents and children to talk with each other, and failed to have any system for tracking the children or ensuring that families could ever be reunited.

These claims are the first step toward holding the government accountable for the separations and the resulting serious trauma and suffering of the affected families.

All three fathers who filed claims on July 24 struggled not knowing anything about their children’s whereabouts or wellbeing. Despite their extensive efforts to track down and contact their children, they spent days or weeks terrified that they would never see them again.

Like other parents, they were pressured to either abandon their right to seek asylum or risk permanent separation from their children. Compounding these harms, the three fathers were deported without their children and had to wait months to be reunited. All three children continue to suffer from nightmares, separation anxiety, and behavioral problems. Their fathers and extended families also continue to suffer.

The claims describe in agonizing detail the experiences of the fathers and children: their forcible separation, their suffering in custody for months, the deportation of the fathers without their children, and the ongoing fallout the families are enduring

R.Z.G. was forcibly separated from his 9-year-old daughter after they presented themselves at a port of entry and requested asylum in late 2017. During the nearly eight-month separation, he was tormented as he made repeated and unsuccessful efforts to track her down and as he went through indefinite detention and deportation without her. His daughter alleges that she was abused by immigration officials during the separation.

After being forcibly separated, H.P.M. and his 6-year-old daughter remained apart for 108 days. The claim includes excruciating details of the suffering they endured as a result of the separation, detention and inhumane treatment as well as notes from the young girl’s caseworkers regarding her extensive emotional trauma.

The SPLC worked closely with Justice in Motion, an organization that through its network of human rights defenders has facilitated the painstaking work of identifying parents deported to Central America without their children, and that is assisting in the reunifications. Additionally, Justice in Motion has referred many families so that they can access justice for the harm they endured while separated.

Last summer, the SPLC through its Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) worked with more than 40 parents who were separated at the border and sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers in Georgia and Louisiana.

In April, the SPLC and Covington & Burling filed complaints on behalf of two additional fathers who were also separated from their children. Those claims are pending. If the government fails to respond within six months or rejects the administrative claims, the fathers can sue the government in federal court.

“The damage done to these fathers, their children and entire families can never be undone,” said Jay Carey, a partner at Covington & Burling. “But, those responsible for their suffering can and must be held responsible, and a message be sent – especially to this administration – that such cruelty will not be tolerated.”

Justice in Motion Executive Director Cathleen Caron said: “These families continue to suffer trauma, as a result of the gross mistreatment by our government. We stand with these families as they seek justice for the harms they have suffered at the hands of the administration.”

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images