Three mothers and one father separated from their minor children after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration sued the U.S. government on Monday seeking damages for the trauma they say they experienced from the ordeal, according to a federal court filing in Arizona.
The filing marks a change in strategy for the migrant families who previously sought a settlement with the Biden Justice Department only to have those negotiations fall apart last fall.
“Each of the four plaintiff families were separated with no notice, no information, and no plan for reunification,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in the filing.
“For weeks, the parents and children were detained separately, sometimes thousands of miles apart. For weeks, the parents and children begged to be reunited. And for weeks, the government —due to a combination of ineptitude and cruelty — refused to provide information on their loved ones’ whereabouts, well-being or whether they would ever see each other again.”
One of the families spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity, fearing that they could be targeted if they are eventually deported back to their home country of Guatemala.
“I thought I was never going to see my son ever again,” the mother, who goes by the pseudonym M.S.E. in the lawsuit, told NBC News on Monday. “I would ask for information about him and they would ignore me. They would tell me to forget about him.”
M.S.E. said she was not allowed to follow when Customs and Border Protection officers called her 14-year-old son out of a cell shortly after they crossed the border in 2018. She and other mothers cried and called out to their children as they saw them being loaded onto a bus and sent to another facility.
The mother and son were separated for two months, without knowing where the other one was or how to reach them.
Multiple times, she said, she was told she would be deported and her son would be put up for adoption.
“(They said) that over here there were a lot of families that wanted to have children, but didn’t have any, and that I came to hand over my son,” M.S.E. said.
In July 2018, two months after being separated, M.S.E. thought she was being deported back to Guatemala. But instead the plane took her to another detention facility in the United States. Her son was led into the room and the two reunited in a tearful embrace.
Today, M.S.E. lives in Austin, Texas, with her son and her other child. She said money she could receive from the lawsuit would help provide her children with a stable life, help her treat the high blood pressure she said she started experiencing upon being separated from her son and help her son get mental health care. She said he became withdrawn and started cutting himself shortly after their experience of being separated.
“I would like to give a stable place to my kids, where they feel comfortable and safe and without worry,” said M.S.E., who now works as a line cook.
Last December, the Biden Justice Department broke off talks to provide compensation for separated families after President Biden publicly balked at a $450,000 figure that was being floated. Now, some of the separated families are filing individual claims seeking relief for damages they say they suffered as a result of the policy.
Though lawyers representing the families from RAICES, an immigration advocacy group, and Hogan Lovells, a national law firm, did not specify how much they hope to win, they did tell NBC News they expect the figure to be much larger than $450,000 per family.
Separately from this lawsuit, lawyers representing separated families are advocating that they have the right to permanently stay and work in the United States. They claim the trauma they experienced should entitle them to protections, but so far the Biden administration has not agreed to that carve out for the more than 5,000 families separated by the Trump administration.
M.S.E. said the government officials who carried out family separations should be punished, but so far the Biden administration has made no public move to hold those Trump officials to account.
“They don’t know the experience, the trauma that one lives with for the rest of their lives,” M.S.E. said. “They need to be punished.”