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SPLC files claims against Trump administration on behalf of parents and children who suffered harm from family separation policy

Facing gang violence and extortion in Guatemala, J.V.S. and his 5-year-old daughter fled their home to seek refuge in the U.S.

Soon after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Arizona, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) took them into custody and transported them to a CBP facility, where an immigration agent asked J.V.S., “You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? We’re going to take the girl away and send her to a detention center for minors, and you’re going to be imprisoned.”

J.V.S. and his daughter spent two days and nights in the facility, crowded into a cage with about 30 other people, in what is known to detainees as the hielera, or “the icebox,” because of its frigid temperatures. The girl was forced to sleep on the concrete floor, as her father watched over her, sitting up on a concrete bench.

Soon, government officials made good on the agents’ threat.

As the small girl was taken away from her father, she cried and screamed, “Papi, don’t leave me!”

She was flown across the country to a foster home in New York; her father was taken first to an immigration prison in Arizona, then to another two others in Georgia. The father and daughter would not see each other again for more than two months. It would be weeks before they even spoke briefly on the phone, after the father’s desperate efforts from detention to locate her.

J.V.S. is one of two parents who filed administrative claims today against the U.S. government after immigration officials unjustly and forcibly separated them from their children at the border. The fathers are seeking compensation for the harms the Trump administration’s family separation policy caused them and their children. This Saturday, April 6, marks the one-year anniversary of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement of the “zero-tolerance” policy, which resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents at the border.

The complainants are among more than 40 parents who worked with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that provides pro bono legal counsel to those facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast – last summer after they were separated from their children and sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers in Georgia and Louisiana.

“It was the worst day of my life when my daughter was taken from me,” J.V.S. said. “I was forced to watch while government officials lined her up with other children taken from their parents at the hielera and marched her out the door, not knowing if I’d ever see her again.”

The claims, filed by the SPLC and its co-counsel, Covington & Burling, tell of the chilling and heart-wrenching experiences of families who were victims of the government’s cruel and haphazard separation of thousands of children from their parents. The Trump administration intended to cause terror, anguish and harm, and to use that cruelty to deter future migrants from seeking to enter the U.S., according to the claims.

“The Trump administration’s inhumane and unlawful family separation policy caused deep and lasting harm to children and their parents,” said Michelle Lapointe, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC. “The policy was designed and implemented to inflict the maximum amount of cruelty possible on vulnerable people, like our clients. These fathers seek to hold the government accountable for the damage it deliberately caused their families. This is critical to ensuring that the government never again implements such a malicious policy.”

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, the claims said.

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.

In addition to the harm caused by being forcibly separated from their fathers, the two children referenced in the claims suffered abuse while in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency that is tasked with safeguarding unaccompanied children.

The fathers went weeks without knowing their children’s whereabouts, terrified that they would never see their children again. Like other parents, the fathers were pressured either to abandon their right to seek asylum or else risk permanent separation from their children. The children continue to suffer from nightmares, separation anxiety and behavioral problems.

A.P.F., the other father who filed a claim, said he and his 7-year-old son left Guatemala and fled to the U.S. after receiving threats. But when they reached the U.S. border, they were detained and separated, and were forced to spend 65 days apart.

While the two were separated, A.P.F. said, other children sexually abused his son.

“I never dreamed that the United States would treat my son and me this way,” A.P.F. said. “We came looking for safety and instead, we were caged like animals. No one answered my calls for help when my son grew more and more sick. He was taken from me and I had no idea what was happening to him. When I learned that he was abused by other boys, I was sick with grief. No one deserves this cruelty.”  

Matt Schlesinger, a partner at Covington & Burling, the SPLC’s co-counsel, said: “The federal government’s policy of needlessly separating children from their parents at the border will forever be a significant stain on this nation’s history. It is both obvious and well documented that tearing small children away from their parents causes enormous short- and long-term pain and suffering. Some of that damage can never be undone, and we seek compensation from responsible parties to mitigate these harms and send a message that this form of cruelty was the exception and not the norm in this country.”

Photo by Todd Bigelow