Families sue U.S. government over child separations at southern border

Lawyers for eight immigrant families separated under Trump administration policy filed claims Monday against the U.S. government demanding $6 million US each in damages for what they describe as lasting trauma.

Suit alleges children suffered lasting trauma while parents were mocked and mistreated by border agents

A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border on June 12, 2018. The asylum seekers were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing centre for possible separation. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Lawyers for eight immigrant families separated under policies enacted by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump filed claims Monday against the U.S. government demanding $6 million US each in damages for what they describe as lasting trauma.

The parents accused immigration officers of taking their children away without giving them information and sometimes mocking them or denying them a chance to say goodbye. The claims allege that many children remain traumatized, including a seven-year-old girl who won't sleep without her mother and a six-year-old boy who is reluctant to eat.

The Trump administration has acknowledged it separated more than 2,000 families last year through the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy intended to crack down on Central American migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Government watchdogs have also said it's unclear how many families were separated in total because agencies did not keep good enough records as the policy was implemented.

Javier Garrido Martinez, left, and Alan Garcia were reunited with their four-year-old sons after almost two months of separation. (Robert Bumsted/Associated Press)

In one claim, a Guatemalan woman alleges she was detained in May with her five-year-old son in a type of temporary detention facility nicknamed a "hielera," or icebox in Spanish. When they arrived in Arizona, the claim alleges, an immigration officer told her the law had changed, that their children would be taken, and that they would be deported. She says the officer then told her: "Happy Mother's Day."

The woman says another immigration officer woke her up at about 5 a.m. days later, ordered her to bathe and clothe her son, and then took her son into another room. The woman says she begged not to have her son taken, then asked that the two be deported together to Guatemala rather than separated.

"The officer laughed," the claim says. "He made fun of her indigenous accent and said, laughingly, 'it's not that easy."'

They were reunited in July, but then placed in a family detention center. They were released in November.

Activists marched past the White House in June 2018 to protest the Trump administration's approach to illegal border crossings and separation of children from immigrant parents. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Stanton Jones, a lawyer for the families, said the families were entitled to monetary damages because of the U.S. government's "inexplicable cruelty."

"The government was harming children intentionally to try to advance what it viewed as a policy objective," Jones said. "It's heinous and immoral, but it's also a civil wrong for which the law provides a claim for relief."

The claims were submitted to the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The act gives government agencies six months to respond before a potential lawsuit, Jones said.

HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer said the department couldn't comment on the claims, but that HHS "plays no role in the apprehension or initial detention" of children referred to its care, including children who were separated from their parents by immigration authorities.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.