Parents and Children Torn Apart by Family Separation Policy Sue the Trump Administration

Five families enduring lasting emotional and physical suffering seek accountability for the federal government’s intentional infliction of trauma

September 19, 2019

WASHINGTON—Five asylum-seeking mothers and their children who were torn apart under the Trump administration’s family separation policy filed a lawsuit today against the United States for the cruel treatment and agony U.S. immigration agencies inflicted on them. The five parents and their children, who were as young as five at the time of the separation, claim that the U.S. government intentionally subjected them to extraordinary trauma that will have lifelong implications.

Each plaintiff seeks compensatory damages from the government for its intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. Administrative claims filed in February with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services detailed the excruciating suffering that these mothers and children experienced as a result of the administration’s intentional policy to separate migrant families upon entering the United States—a policy that senior government officials have confirmed was designed to deter migrants from seeking refuge in the United States.

In today’s filing, the mothers describe the harrowing circumstances in which immigration officers forcefully separated their children from them. They received no information as to where the government sent their children and were provided minimal information on their whereabouts for much of their separation, which lasted months in all cases. The mothers were left in agony, believing they would never see their children again.

The children in all five families suffered similar trauma and continue to experience symptoms of emotional and physical distress. For example:

  • An eight-year-old girl is still unable to sleep unless her mother holds her.
  • A seven-year-old boy separated from his mother for more than two months refuses to talk about his time in a New York shelter and is reluctant to eat.
  • A 14-year-old boy refuses to discuss the separation or his time in detention and experiences outbursts of inexplicable anger.
  • A six-year-old girl has nightmares about her experience and often screams out to her mother in the night seeking protection from people who might separate them again.
  • An eight-year-old boy shows constant signs of fear when he is apart from his mother, especially when his mother takes him to school.

The families taking part in the lawsuit are represented by Arnold & Porter; Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin; the American Immigration Council; and the National Immigrant Justice Center.

“Under the family separation policy, immigration officers took children from their parents, flew children to shelters across the country, and failed for weeks to tell the parents where their children were or how they were doing,” said Erik Walsh, an attorney with Arnold & Porter. “This conduct was illegal, and this lawsuit now seeks to hold the government accountable for the severe and lasting trauma it intentionally inflicted on these families.”

“We must do all we can to ensure that the government never again adopts a policy that is designed to cause severe trauma and human suffering, simply for seeking protection in the United States,” said Claudia Valenzuela, an attorney with the American Immigration Council. “Congress created a legal mechanism that allows individuals to seek compensation for the U.S. government’s wrongful conduct, and with this lawsuit, five families are pursuing this remedy.”

“The most stunning aspect of the family separation policy is that the U.S. government set out to harm innocent children,” said Jonathan Feinberg, an attorney with Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin. “Our clients’ stories prove that the government succeeded in its goal. But, with this lawsuit, our clients are demonstrating that such extraordinary misconduct comes with a legal consequence.”

“Since these families’ FTCA claims were originally filed, we have gained an even clearer understanding of how severely traumatized they remain as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and that all have a long journey ahead to recover and finally feel the security and peace they came to this country to find. They deserve justice, which includes compensatory damages that will help them access resources they will need to heal from this experience,” said Kate Melloy Goettel, associate director of litigation at the National Immigrant Justice Center.

The U.S. government has admitted to separating at least 3,800 children from their parents or guardians after they crossed the southwestern U.S. border. Recent reports indicate that the number of families separated may have been much higher, and that the administration continues to separate children at the border.


For more information, contact:

Maria Frausto, American Immigration Council, [email protected], 202-507-7526;
Tara Tidwell Cullen, National Immigrant Justice Center, [email protected], 312-833-2967, 312-660-1337;
Justine Sessions, Arnold & Porter, [email protected], 202-331-1002.

Media Contact

Elyssa Pachico
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