The American Civil Liberties Union went to court Thursday to demand the federal government pay damages to migrant families who were snared and separated by last year’s zero-tolerance border policy.
The class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court in Arizona on behalf of several families and seeks compensatory and punitive damages. It also seeks to establish a new fund to pay for future mental health care for families who faced separation.
“Although separated families can never be made whole, justice requires redress for their suffering,” the families say in their lawsuit.
The lawsuit piggybacks on complaints by mental health experts who say separating children from parents leaves lasting scars on the children.
Thousands of children were separated during the zero-tolerance policy, which lasted several months during spring 2018.
The policy was announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and it was focused on prosecuting parents who jumped the border illegally with their children.
Traditionally, only about 20% of unauthorized crossers faced criminal charges, while the rest were put in deportation proceedings, but escaped criminal penalties.
Under zero-tolerance, the rate shot to about 50%, as parents — who previously had been off-limits — began to face charges.
The separations were a side-effect of the prosecutions. Since there’s no space for families inside prisons or jails, when the parents were prosecuted their children had to be taken away and were turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services to be held.
Yet the Department Homeland Security and HHS lacked the ability to easily reunite the children with the parents once they were released.
Some separations stretched months, and stories of distraught children traumatized by the experience shook the country.
One of the plaintiffs in the class-action case, identified as Beatriz, a Guatemalan girl, “was physically abused by her caretaker” after being separated at the age of 3, the lawsuit said. Another, a Honduran boy named Andres who was 6 at the time, “was torn kicking and screaming from the arms of his father” even as his father tried to make guards aware of his son’s heart murmur.
President Trump issued an executive order curtailing separations in late June 2018, and a federal court stepped in and ordered a halt to the practice. That judge also ordered the government to reunite families.
Nearly all of them have been reconnected, though a few cases continue as parents who were deported try to decide whether to leave their children in the U.S. or to have them sent back to their home countries.
The ACLU’s lawsuit says the administration intentionally discriminated against Central Americans, compounding the injury from the zero-tolerance policy.
Mr. Sessions, who was ousted as attorney general last year, is the top defendant named in the lawsuit. Among the others named are Gene Hamilton, a top adviser at the Justice Department, former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, and Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president and an architect of the administration’s immigration plans.
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