Separated migrant families demand millions from US agencies

NOMAAN MERCHANT
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FILE - In this March 12, 2018 file photo, supporters of temporary protected status of immigrants cheer as they hold signs and banners with the outline of El Salvador at a rally at a federal courthouse in San Francisco. Immigrants from Honduras and Nepal have filed a lawsuit alleging the Trump administration unfairly ended a program that lets them live and work in the United States. The lawsuit filed late Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in federal court in San Francisco alleges that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's decision to end so-called temporary protected status for the countries was motivated by racism. In 2018, a federal judge in San Francisco temporarily blocked the U.S. government from halting the program for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. The suit filed by citizens of those countries, much like this one, cited Trump's vulgar language during a meeting last year to describe African countries. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

HOUSTON (AP) — Eight immigrant families who were separated under Trump administration policy filed claims Monday seeking millions of dollars in damages for what a lawyer called "inexplicable cruelty" that did lasting damage to parents and children.

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. One Guatemalan woman alleged that an immigration officer said her 5-year-old son would be taken, then taunted, "Happy Mother's Day."

The claims allege that many children remain traumatized even after being reunited with their parents, including a 7-year-old girl who won't sleep without her mother and a 6-year-old boy who is reluctant to eat.

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

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.

In her claim , the Guatemalan woman alleges she was detained in May with her son in a type of temporary detention facility nicknamed a "hielera," or icebox in Spanish. The immigration officer who taunted her and three other women told them the law had changed, that their children would be taken away, and that they would be deported, the claim alleges.

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. Her son only spoke the indigenous Guatemalan language of Mam.

"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.

Stanton Jones, a lawyer for the families, said the families were entitled to monetary damages because of the 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 spokeswoman 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.