The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages on behalf of thousands of traumatized children and parents who were forcibly torn from each other under the Trump administration’s illegal practice of separating families at the border.

“The suffering and trauma inflicted on these little children and parents is horrific,” said Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead lawyer in the family separation lawsuit, Ms. L v. ICE. “Tragically, it could take years for these families to heal. Some may never recover, but we are fighting to give them a chance.”

The ACLU won a nationwide injunction in June 2018 blocking family separations. The lawsuit covers separations happening between 2017 to present. During that time:

  • Thousands of children, including babies and toddlers, were ripped from their parents’ arms with little or no warning. Explanations were not given as to why they were being separated.
  • Answers were not provided as to where the children were taken. Information was not given to either the children or parents about each other’s whereabouts.
  • Children were sent to facilities hundreds or thousands of miles away from their parents. Separated families were not told when — or even if— they would ever see each other again. Many children and parents did not see each other again for a year or more.
  • The separated children, after being taken from their parents, were detained in punitive conditions, which included being provided no means of communication with their parents for weeks or months. During this period, parents had no idea how their children were being cared for, or by whom.
  • Several parents attempted suicide, and some tragically occurred. Traumatized children were not provided any meaningful treatment to address the suffering they experienced or the lasting effects of their separation and confinement.
  • During the separations, the Trump administration further ignored the law and their duty to care for separated families — failing to take even the most basic steps to protect children, maintain information on family units, or mitigate the families’ suffering while in government custody.  
  • The administration’s care and tracking for the separated children was so deficient that when a federal court finally ordered the government to reunify families, government officials were unable to identify which child belonged to which parent.  

Leading child welfare organizations, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and medical professionals have publicly denounced the forced separation of children from their parents, citing the long-lasting, detrimental effects on children’s emotional growth and cognitive development. Separated parents, meanwhile, face an increased risk of developing mental health disorders, with trauma linked to severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Plaintiffs cited in the complaint include families from Guatemala and Honduras who were separated along the border in Arizona for up to 16 months. 

In addition to damages, the lawsuit seeks the creation of a fund to pay for professional mental health services for affected families.

The lawsuit, A.I.I.L. v. Sessions, cites violations of the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable seizure of children); the Fifth Amendment due process clause (fundamental right to family integrity; right to a hearing; right to adequate health care); and equal protection (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin).

Defendants include officials from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services/Office of Refugee Settlement, and the White House.

The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona. Co-counsel are PaulWeiss,Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; Alexander A. Reinert, professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law;and the ACLU of Arizona.

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