Six migrant families filed multi-million dollar claims Monday against the Trump administration over last year’s family separations, saying they need the money to pay for counseling and other medical care to heal from the “torture” they said they suffered.
The legal claims are the latest effort by immigrant-rights groups to punish the administration for the separations of thousands of children, which resulted from the Justice Department’s zero tolerance policy for illegal border crossers.
The families and their lawyers say the policy intended to inflict “emotional distress” on the parents and children, hoping it would make attempting to sneak into the U.S. so uncomfortable that fewer people would attempt it.
“It succeeded with devastating consequences,” said Mark Fleming, associate director of litigation at the National Immigration Justice Center.
Under the zero tolerance policy, the Justice Department began to file criminal charges against most illegal immigrants for illegal entry, a misdemeanor, or re-entry, a felony. The administration said the goal was to create some consequences for families who were breaking the law but generally had been released under the previous policies.
But since the criminal justice system can’t hold families together, the parents were separated from their children, who were then deemed unaccompanied and were placed with the Department of Health and Human Services, which put them in shelters or sought sponsors to take them.
A federal judge in June ordered an end to the separations and ordered the families reunited. That sent the government scrambling to reconnect more than 2,000 children who had been separated from parents who, in some cases, had already been deported.
A legal battle over the pace of reunifications is still being fought in a federal court in California, but Monday’s action is a separate step, seeking to make those snared in the separations whole.
The claims were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Monday’s action was a notification of claims, and the government now has six months to evaluate the claims and decide what to do.
If the migrants don’t find the government’s response satisfactory, they can file a lawsuit to try to enforce their demand.
Each claimant seeks $3 million.
Of the six migrant families, five appear to have sneaked across the border and been arrested as illegal immigrants. Based on the filings, the sixth appears to have shown up at a port of entry without permission.
Each of the families then made a claim for asylum, and those claims are pending, giving them a tentative status.
One Guatemalan woman the lawyers had speak to reporters, identified only as “Leticia,” said her 5-year-old daughter was taken from her for more than four months during the separations.
Leticia, speaking Spanish, said she fled her home because of threats of gang violence and had expected refuge in the U.S. She said she was stunned when officers separated her from her daughter.
“I lost so much weight, I had headaches, I had dizzy spells and I started losing my hair. It was torture,” Leticia said.
“We will live with the trauma of this separation for the rest of our lives.”
In her complaint, Leticia says her daughter has nightmares and night sweats, and sometimes blurts out, “Don’t let them take me away again.”
Other migrants complained of continued headaches, trouble eating and worries over a repeat separation.
A pediatrician told reporters the trauma of a separation can last a lifetime.
The claims were filed against both the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
HHS said it couldn’t get into specific claims filed, but said it wasn’t involved in the separations.
Homeland Security said it didn’t have an immediate response to the claims.