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Separated families sue U.S. gov’t

Lawsuit seeks damages for children’s trauma

Catherine McGloin
Separated families sue U.S. gov’t
Democrats held a Unity Rally at the Cambridge Community Center to celebrate their wins in the recent primaries. Pictured are (l-r) guberbatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez, incumbent senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren, and congressional candidate Ayanna Pressley. Photo: Don West

She was forcibly separated from her 17-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter after attempting to cross the Southwestern border into the United States last May.

Now, on behalf of her children, this mother and her husband, along with another father separated from his son by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, are suing federal government officials and seeking damages for the long-term psychological trauma caused by forced separation.

“The lawsuit is about accountability,” said Howard Cooper, an attorney at Todd & Weld LLP and part of the coalition of lawyers who will represent the two families, both from Guatemala. “It’s about holding accountable public officials who intentionally set up a practice of inflicting trauma on children and their families at the border in order to deter lawful immigration,” he said.

The complaint, filed Sept. 5, is the first class action case against the government on behalf of children separated from their families by ICE. Cooper and the coalition of lawyers, which includes representation from Nixon Peabody LLP, Demissie & Church, the law offices of Jeff Goldman, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, are suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, as well as other top-ranking government officials.

“The plaintiffs are bringing this lawsuit in order to recover damages,” said Cooper at a press conference at Todd & Weld’s office in Boston last Thursday afternoon. “But first and foremost to require the defendant to pay for the harm they have caused, in particular the suffering they have caused the children, who have been experiencing a variety of emotional trauma.”

The exact amount the families are asking for was not specified, but when asked if it could be hundreds of millions, Cooper said that seemed “perfectly reasonable.”

The plaintiffs include L.J. and E.O., the mother and father of the teenage boy and young girl, and F.C., father of a third child forcibly separated at the border. Both families are now lawfully seeking asylum in the U.S. and living in Worcester County, Massachusetts, but they still suffer the psychological effects of being forcibly separated.

In tears, L.J. said, through an interpreter at the conference, that she was unaware she would be separated from her children when she crossed the border and that it felt like they were being kidnapped. She did not know where her children were going or if she would ever see them again.

They were reunited after two months, at the end of July, but the trauma continues. L.J. and her husband E.O. both said their son was hit by ICE officers because the officers did not believe he was 17 years old, an incident he has nightmares about to this day. Both children suffer night frights and frequently fall from their beds. L.J. said she would not have attempted the crossing if she had known what would happen to her family.

F.C. cradled his son all night to keep him warm and sacrificed meals so that his son would not starve during their time in detention, said Susan Church, a lawyer from Demissie & Church. “The fact of separating me from my child has destroyed my heart,” said F.C. through an interpreter, who did not know where ICE officers had taken his son from June 20, when they were separated, until July 26.

“They represent a class of people who have been treated so inhumanely, so cruelly, and so inconsistently with the principles of this country,” said Church.

All of the parents said they were fighting for justice, something that, despite their experiences, they believe they can achieve through the U.S. judicial system.

“I’m here today to ask the government for justice because I have suffered much damage to myself and my child,” said F.C.

This landmark lawsuit is also about preventing these and many more children from suffering psychological trauma later on in life by providing them with long-term care, said Church.

Like many asylum seekers, these families cannot get health insurance, and significant language barriers make it difficult for them to find adequate therapists and access mental health treatment. With financial assistance, they will not have to rely on the services of pro bono medical professionals and will be able to pay to travel to specialists who speak their language.

The legal team is confident that they will be able to give these families the compensation and relief they seek, said Joseph Cacace, an attorney with Todd & Weld.

Of the thousands of children who have been forcibly separated from their families by ICE officers as part of the federal government’s zero-tolerance approach to immigration, more than 520 have not been reunified with family members or guardians. The parents of 360 of these children have already been deported, making it extremely difficult to return the children to their families.

“The damage has been unbelievable,” said Jesse Bless, an attorney with Jeff Goldman’s office. “Now it’s our turn to demonstrate … that we’re not going to tolerate the damage to these children.”

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