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The Trump administration’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy didn’t just separate thousands of families — it left them with long-lasting emotional trauma. And a lawsuit filed on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union Thursday details just how distressing that separation could be.
Filed in Arizona federal court on Thursday, the suit is the ACLU’s latest attempt to fight the Trump administration's policies that resulted in thousands of migrant children being forcibly taken from their parents at the border over several months in 2018. When they were reunited, the government had trouble reuniting families because agencies failed to keep adequate records on which children arrived with which caretakers.
In some cases, kids who were too young to communicate were asked to point to their country’s flag so officials could narrow down who their parents were and where they might be, according to the suit. And parents were even deported to their native countries without their children.
The suit filed Thursday seeks damages for every affected family, though the ACLU hasn’t specified a dollar amount. Instead, it’s seeking class-action status in the hopes of compensating thousands of migrants who were traumatized by the policy but may not have the resources to file on their own.
Here's some of the worst treatment the families had to endure, according to the suit:
”Torn kicking and screaming“
Jorge, a migrant from Honduras, was allegedly separated from his sleeping daughter in the middle of the night and did not get a chance to say goodbye. (Jorge and the other migrants in the suit are referred to by their first names or initials to protect their privacy.)
The two were being held in a Customs and Border Protection processing station, and when an officer told Jorge to leave the cell, the suit claims, Jorge assumed he was being taken in for questioning. Instead, he was transferred to an ICE detention facility.
Children who watched their parents get taken away didn't fare much better. Andrés, a 6-year-old from Honduras, was "torn kicking and screaming" from his father's arms. His father, Jacinto, tried to tell immigration officers about his son’s heart murmur during the traumatic scene. Andrés was eventually sent to live with a foster family in New York, who he was told to call “Mom” and “Dad,” the suit claims.
Signing away their rights
Three of the migrant parents named in the lawsuit were allegedly told they needed to sign paperwork in English — which they couldn’t read — either to help their cases or to reunite them with their children. But they were actually signing voluntary deportation forms, according to the lawsuit.
Immigration officers allegedly told one woman, Lorena, that she needed to sign the forms to be reunited with her teenage daughter, who’d been sent to a shelter before being transferred to foster care. After Lorena signed the form, though, she was deported to El Salvador without her daughter, and they didn’t see each other for more than a year.
Another parent, Jacinto, was also allegedly told to sign paperwork that immigration officers said would help with his asylum case, the suit claims. After he signed it, the same officer allegedly told him it was actually a removal form. Jacinto was deported to Honduras without his son, Andres, and waited more than a year to reunite.
Unlike the others, a Guatemalan migrant named Jairo wasn’t told signing papers would help his case. Instead, he was allegedly told that he’d be deported regardless of whether he signed, but that signing the documents would help officials reunite him with his young daughter, Beatriz.
Instead, Jairo was deported without her. And by the time Beatriz was reunited with her family, she had lost her ability to speak Mam, an indigenous Mayan language, making it nearly impossible for her to communicate with her mother.
Mocked or beaten
Many of the parents mentioned in the complaint say they and their children were berated by Border Patrol and CBP agents. Lorena, the mother from El Salvador, claims one CBP officer mocked her after she told him where she was from, saying, “Fuck these Salvadorans.”
Staff members at Casa Kokopelli, a child migrant shelter run by the nonprofit organization Southwest Key, allegedly told Lorena’s daughter Karina that she should go back to her country and tell other Salvadoran kids not to come to the U.S.
Some of the children named in the suit were also allegedly physically abused by shelter staff. Beatriz, the young Guatemalan girl who forgot her native language after spending several months away from her family, had bruises on her legs and a scar on her back when she was reunited with her father. When her father asked what caused the marks, the suit claims that Beatriz said a shelter staffer in New York hit her with the metal end of a belt.
Not the first case
The ACLU filed its first suit against family separation last year, which sought to stop the policy and reunite parents and kids. But even after a federal judge ordered an end to zero tolerance last June, the ACLU found that more than 900 children had since been taken from their relatives by Customs and Border Protection, according to another lawsuit filed on behalf of those families in July.
Other migrants who were emotionally affected by family separation have filed similar complaints. One group of asylum-seeking families sued the administration in September. That month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Congolese woman who was pulled from her 7-year-old daughter. And in February, eight families filed a suit against the government that asks for $6 million in damages per family.
COVER: Border Patrol agents near McAllen, Texas take asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018, before sending them on to a facility where they'll be processed and potentially separated. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)