Migrant families, now in N.J., sue over Trump-era family separation policy

By: - November 17, 2022 6:55 am

Migrants hold hands as they cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico at the Rio Grande river, on their way to enter El Paso, Texas, on May 20, 2019, as taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Photo by Mario Tama | Getty Images)

Three New Jersey families forcibly separated at the southern U.S. border in 2018 sued the federal government this week for harms they suffered under the Trump administration’s controversial strategy to deter asylum seekers.

The lawsuits come after the Biden administration withdrew last year from negotiations to provide compensation to about 5,650 migrant families separated under the policy, 134 of whom remained separated as of last month.

Attorney Catherine Weiss, chair of the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest, represents the New Jersey families who filed complaints against the government Monday. Separated families suffered lasting harm as a result of the separation policy and deserve compensation, Weiss said.

“The idea behind this family separation policy was to cause maximum distress to immigrant families as a way of deterring others from coming,” Weiss said. “The government needs to understand that when it undertakes to cause harm, it does not get a free pass. It cannot take young children and rip them out of their parents’ arms and send them thousands of miles away and not tell the family members where each other are or whether each other are safe and then expect to pay nothing for its conduct.”

About 28 other families have filed similar lawsuits in Texas, Arizona, California, New York, and other states, Weiss said.

The three New Jersey families who sued this week were separated for almost six months, combined. In the lawsuits, they were identified by pseudonyms to protect their privacy:

  • Jacob and his 4-year-old daughter Leya fled Honduras and arrived in Hidalgo, Texas, after a weeks-long trek on April 7, 2018. A day later, immigration authorities accused Jacob of kidnapping Leya and took her, and the pair spent 93 days apart. They had decided to seek humanitarian protection in the U.S. to escape violence and escalating death threats in Honduras from an armed group that had killed their relatives. They have not yet been granted asylum.
  • Beatriz and her 3-year-old son Manuel fled El Salvador and arrived in Rio Grande City, Texas, after a two-week journey on May 28, 2018. Once here, Beatriz was separated from her son for 42 days. Beatriz, who is gay, was a teenager when she was repeatedly raped and assaulted by an MS-13 gang leader in El Salvador, resulting in the pregnancy that led to Manuel’s birth. She decided to come to the U.S. to protect her son from the gang. Both continue seeking asylum.
  • Rafael and his 12-year-old son Orlan left Guatemala and arrived in El Paso, Texas, after a four-month journey on June 15, 2018. They were separated for 37 days. Rafael and his family faced escalating death threats in Guatemala because of a dispute over ancestral indigenous lands. Rafael’s father and uncle had been murdered over the same dispute. Rafael and his son decided to seek protection in the U.S. Both were granted asylum in 2021.

Justice Department lawyers had been negotiating for about a year with impacted families to resolve damage claims, but after word leaked in October 2021 that payments could reach $450,000 per family, talks stalled as conservatives protested.

Spokespeople for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the New Jersey lawsuits.



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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.