Six immigrant families separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy have filed claims against the federal government seeking millions in damages over allegations that U.S. officers inflicted “life-altering trauma” on migrant mothers and their young children.
In the claims, filed with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security, attorneys for the six parents allege their children were pried from their arms, that they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that one mother “was so distraught that she sometimes wanted to die.”
The parents are requesting $3 million in damages per claimant.
“These children and their parents have experienced horrific, life-altering trauma that was intentionally inflicted on them by our government,” Stanton Jones, an attorney at the firm Arnold & Porter, which is representing some of the families, said in a statement on Monday. The families are also being represented by lawyers with the American Immigration Council, National Immigration Justice Center and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment; a spokesperson with Health and Human Services said the agency was unable to comment on specific, pending claims filed with the department, and emphasized the agency doesn’t enforce immigration laws.
Monday’s allegations follow brutal testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee last week, where immigration advocates and senior government officials detailed the ways in which “zero tolerance” tore apart families primarily seeking refuge in the U.S. from their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The policy, which has since ended, was formally introduced in April as a way to deter migrant families from entering the country, since all immigrant families without documentation were separated after they crossed the border. During the hearing, advocates alleged the Office of Refugee Resettlement lacked a system for reuniting families and adequately tracking which children had been taken from their parents and which children had entered the U.S. unaccompanied.
In January, the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services conceded it did not know exactly how many children have been separated. Around 2,700 children were identified as having been taken from their parents, but the number could be much higher, and that it’s still not clear how many have been reunited with their families.
One 25-year-old Guatemalan woman detailed in the claims filed Monday, Leticia, alleged that after she crossed the border into Arizona in May 2018, her 5-year-old daughter was taken from her for 124 days.
She initially wasn’t told where her daughter was going, but later she found out the child had been sent to a facility in New York City. Leticia was nearly deported without her daughter until an attorney filed an emergency petition to keep her in the country until she was reunified with her daughter. They were reunited in September.
“My daughter is not the same,” Leticia said in a statement released by her attorneys. “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."
Cover: In this Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immigrants walk into a building at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Half a dozen families who were separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border are still detained in Texas months after reuniting with their children. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP, File)