Separated migrant families demand millions from US agencies

HOUSTON (AP) — Lawyers for eight immigrant families separated under Trump administration policy filed claims Monday against the U.S. government demanding $6 million each in damages for what they describe as lasting trauma.

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. The claims allege that many children remain traumatized, 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 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 one claim , a Guatemalan woman alleges she was detained in May with her 5-year-old son in a type of temporary detention facility nicknamed a "hielera," or icebox in Spanish. When they arrived in Arizona, the claim alleges, an immigration officer told her the law had changed, that their children would be taken, and that they would be deported. She says the officer then told her: "Happy Mother's Day."

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Migrants trekking to the United States rely on faith
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Migrants trekking to the United States rely on faith

Pastor Jose Murcia, 47, preaches to migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America traveling to the U.S., outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 24, 2018.

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Nicolas Alonso Sanchez, 47, from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., poses for a picture as he holds a cross at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 24, 2018. "God helped me and gave me the strength, helped me to make my dreams come true. God gave me all the strength to get all the way here," Sanchez said. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America traveling to the U.S., pray before food distribution outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico December 1, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Juan Francisco, 25, from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., shows his tattoo of the 23rd Psalm of the Book of Psalms as he poses for a picture outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Victor Alfonso, 29, from Guatemala, part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., poses for a picture as he wears charms depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

David Amador, 25, from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., poses for a picture as he holds a cross at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 28, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America traveling to the U.S., raise their hands while praying before moving by buses to a new shelter, in Tijuana, Mexico November 30, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America traveling to the U.S., is wrapped with a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe in front of a riot police cordon, as migrants try to reach the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Herso, 17, from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., poses for a picture as he wears a t-shirt depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 24, 2018.

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

A booklet of Psalm 119:105 is left on a self-made tent at a temporary shelter of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico November 27, 2018.

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Migrants, part of a caravan from El Salvador traveling to the U.S., pray as they are blocked by the Mexican police during an operation to detain them for entering the country illegally, in Metapa, Mexico November 21, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America traveling to the U.S., raise their hands as they listen to the preaching of pastor Jose Murcia (not pictured) outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 24, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America traveling to the U.S., sleeps with a book in Spanish "What does the Bible teach us?" in a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 24, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

A writing "Jesus Christ is the Lord" is seen on a car window outside a temporary shelter for a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico November 24, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Elmer, 29, from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., poses for a picture as he holds an icon depicting Jesus Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe while lining up for food distribution outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 24, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

Juan Francisco, 25, from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America traveling to the U.S., shows his tattoo reading "I can do everything with Christ who strengthens me" as he poses for a picture outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

An image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is seen in a tent of migrants part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, on a street in Tijuana, Mexico, December 15, 2018.

(REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

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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.

"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.

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

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