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Federal Lawsuit Seeks Damages for Family Torn Apart by Trump Administration’s Separation Policy

TUCSON – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Covington & Burling, and Coppersmith Brockelman has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a father and son who were forcibly separated by government officials for two months after they arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum in May 2018. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for the trauma suffered by the family. 
 
The plaintiffs, referred to by pseudonyms as Eliot and Héctor to protect them, fled Guatemala where Eliot and his family had received death threats. The lawsuit details the poor conditions they faced while in custody together, the torment of their forcible physical separation, the two months of agony while separated, and the ongoing impact of their ordeal. Héctor, who was 11 years old when he was separated from his father, has been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD. He has flashbacks and nightmares and lives in fear that he could be separated from his father again. Eliot, who has also been diagnosed with PTSD, experiences depression and intrusive memories related to the separation. 
 
“This family continues to suffer every day as a result of their horrific experience at the hands of the United States government,” said Gillian Gillers, senior staff attorney at the SPLC. “The government must be held accountable for the harm done to separated families, and we must ensure this sort of cruelty is never repeated again.” 
 
The Trump administration separated more than 5,000 families at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an immoral and illegal policy intended to inflict pain on migrant families to deter future migration, according to the lawsuit. These separations accelerated in May 2018, during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which called for the prosecution of all migrants who crossed the border unlawfully, including parents of young children. 
 
Just last week the Justice Department’s inspector general released a scathing report on the “zero tolerance” policy noting, “The Department’s single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions came at the expense of … consideration of the impact that prosecution of family unit adults and family separations would have on children traveling with them and the government’s ability to later reunite the children with their parents.” 
 
After describing the separation of families as “criminal” during his campaign, President Joe Biden has vowed to create a task force to help reunite children who remain separated from their parents. But even after they are reunited, these families will suffer from the pain of the separation for the rest of their lives, as detailed in the lawsuit.  
 
“The trauma that Eliot and Héctor experienced can never be undone,” said Terra Fulham of Covington & Burling. “But we are asking for significant compensation to help them rebuild their lives, and to prevent the government from ever acting with such cruelty again.” 
 
Forcible parent-child separations have long been known to cause significant short- and long-term damage to mental, physical, and emotional health. Still, beginning in 2017, the Trump administration tore immigrant children from their parents, sent those children thousands of miles away from their parents, refused to inform parents and children of each other’s whereabouts or well-being, and refused to provide adequate means for them to talk with each other. The Trump administration even failed to implement a tracking system to ensure that families could be reunited.
 
During the summer of 2018, the SPLC, through its Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), worked with more than 40 families who were separated at the border and sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers in Georgia and Louisiana. In a lawsuit filed in January 2020 and supplemented in July 2020, the SPLC and Covington & Burling represent another six families who were separated and continue to suffer as a result.
 
The filing comes after the government failed to respond to any of the administrative claims filed on behalf of these families in the past two years. 
 
More information on these families and the effort to seek justice for them can be seen HERE. The filing can be viewed HERE.
 
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