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Weekend Read: SPLC sues Trump administration over family separation policy

The SPLC and its allies have filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration policy that has separated and traumatized thousands of migrant families.

The lawsuit, filed this week on behalf of two immigrant parents separated from their children by immigration officials at the U.S. border, describes how the government deliberately terrorized these families by separating them under this policy, which began in 2017. The policy itself was a callous attempt to deter future migrants from entering the United States.

The SPLC filed the lawsuit with Covington & Burling and Coppersmith Brockelman law firms.

“The Trump Administration’s inhumane and unlawful family separation policy caused deep and lasting harm to children and their parents,” said Michelle Lapointe, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “Multiple internal government investigations have already exposed the reckless implementation and devastating impact of this policy, which was designed and executed to inflict the maximum amount of cruelty possible on vulnerable people, like our clients.”

A report released by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in September 2019 confirmed that intense trauma was common among children who entered the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities in 2018 and in particular among those who were suddenly separated from their parents. It also found children separated from their families “exhibited more fear, feelings of abandonment, and post-traumatic stress than did children who were not separated.”

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 of future migration, the government 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.

“The government has refused to acknowledge that its family separation policy was wrong and that tearing young children away from their parents causes enormous short- and long-term pain and suffering,” added Matt Schlesinger, a partner at Covington & Burling. “This lawsuit, and future ones like it we plan to file, are designed to obtain compensation to help mitigate the harms our clients and their families have suffered and to ensure the government never again implements such a malicious policy.”

In addition to the harm caused by being separated from their fathers, the two children represented by this lawsuit suffered abuse while in the custody of ORR, the agency tasked with safeguarding unaccompanied children. The fathers went weeks without knowing their children’s whereabouts, terrified that they would never see them again. These fathers, like other parents, were pressured either to abandon their right to seek asylum or risk permanent separation from their children. The children continue to suffer from nightmares, separation anxiety and behavioral problems.

“I never dreamed that the United States would treat my son and me this way,” said A.P.F., one of the plaintiffs. “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 [before we were separated]. 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.” 

J.V.S., another plaintiff, was separated from his 5-year-old daughter H.Y. for more than 10 weeks. “It was the worst day of my life when my daughter was taken from me,” he said. “I was forced to watch while government officials lined her up with other children taken from their parents at the hielera [the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility known as the ‘icebox’ for its freezing temperatures] and marched her out the door, not knowing if I’d ever see her again.” 

J.V.S. did not know his daughter’s whereabouts for several weeks after the government separated them. He was able to talk to her only a handful of times in the more than two months they were apart. While in ORR custody, his daughter was subjected to various forms of abuse.

The lawsuit comes after administrative claims were filed for these families in April 2019, a necessary first step before filing the lawsuit.

A.P.F. and J.V.S. were among more than 40 parents the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative worked with last summer after they were separated from their children at the border and sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in Georgia and Louisiana.

In addition to these claims, the SPLC and Covington & Burling have filed administrative claims on behalf of five other families who were separated and continue to suffer as a result. The claims seek a response from the U.S. government. These claims, like the earlier administrative claims filed on behalf of the plaintiffs in this week’s lawsuit, will likely result in federal lawsuits if the government fails to resolve the claims with the families.

More information on these families and the effort to seek justice for them can be seen here. The lawsuit can be viewed here.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images