On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a major lawsuit against the Trump administration, seeking damages for separating migrant families at the border. The separations reached national infamy after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy in April 2018, though the Department of Homeland Security had been running a pilot version of the program since 2017.
The “zero-tolerance” policy mandated prosecution for all illegal border crossings. As a result, because of an existing provision prohibiting the indefinite detention of minors, children and parents were separated at the border so that the adults could be held for criminal proceedings. The policy elicited widespread outrage, and after initially claiming that he was powerless to stop the policy he had decided to enforce, President Trump signed an executive order to end the policy that June.
However, reports indicate that families are still being separated. The ACLU is now suing the administration for financial damages on behalf of the families affected.
“Since 2017, thousands of children, including many 2 years old or younger, have been torn from their parents’ arms with little or no warning,” the lawsuit states. “In many cases, no explanations were given as to why they were being separated, and no answers were provided as to where the children were taken.”
The lawsuit builds off of what many news outlets have reported over the past year: that children were not properly cared for after being separated from their parents, that the government failed to keep track of what happened to separated children, that the trauma of being separated had long-lasting consequences for both the child and the parent, that the government essentially lost children. The listed defendants in the ACLU’s suit include Sessions, former homeland security secretaries John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen, current acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan, Trump adviser Stephen Miller, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan, and former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan.
“The suffering and trauma inflicted on these little children and parents is horrific,” said Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead lawyer on the case, in a press release. “Tragically, it could take years for these families to heal. Some may never recover, but we are fighting to give them a chance.”
The lawsuit covers family separations from 2017 to now, to include families separated under the DHS pilot program. Not only is the suit seeking financial damages for the trauma inflicted on separated families, but it also “seeks the creation of a fund to pay for professional mental health services for affected families.”
The ACLU’s lawsuit further alleges that the government violated the Fourth and Fifth Amendments; the Fourth Amendment prevents the “unreasonable seizure of children” while the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause asserts the fundamental right to family integrity, the right to a hearing, and the right to adequate health care. The suit additionally alleges that the family separations targeted Central American migrants for their race, ethnicity, and national origin, and cites statements by the defendants to that effect.
The ACLU further says that as a result of being separated from their children, some parents attempted suicide, and “tragically” some indeed died by suicide. “Our government must pay for this,” the organization says.
Plaintiffs listed in the suit include a 13-year-old girl who was handcuffed when she was taken from her mother on Christmas Day, resulting in a 16-month separation; a 7-year-old girl whose father was taken away in the middle of the night from the holding facility while she was sleeping; and a 3-year-old who was separated from her father and was subsequently abused by the caretaker the government placed her with.