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A Federal Court Allows Parents and Children Torn Apart by Family Separation Policy to Continue Suit Against the Trump Administration

March 31, 2020
Five families enduring lasting emotional and physical suffering seek accountability for the federal government's intentional infliction of trauma

WASHINGTON—On Monday, a federal court in Arizona allowed five asylum-seeking mothers and their children who were torn apart under the Trump administration's family separation policy to move forward with a lawsuit against the United States for the cruel treatment and anguish US immigration agencies inflicted on them. The court denied the government's motion to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit, filed in September 2019 by five parents and their children, claims that the US government intentionally subjected them to extraordinary trauma that will have lifelong implications. 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.

Each plaintiff seeks compensatory damages from the government for its intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence 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 the complaint, the mothers described 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 (most of whom were sent to shelters across the country in New York) 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.

"We are pleased that the court rejected the government's arguments that the law does not provide a remedy to our clients who suffered under the government's family separation policy," said Diana Reiter, an attorney with Arnold & Porter. "We look forward to continuing this lawsuit and seeking redress for our clients."

"In rejecting the government's attempt to quash this case, the court recognized that the government was not—as it claimed in its motion—enforcing any federal law when it separated these families," said Trina Realmuto, directing attorney for the American Immigration Council. "The court's ruling gives these families a chance to hold the government accountable for the horrific impact caused by its ill-conceived family separation policy."

"Because of the court's ruling, we will now start the discovery process—taking testimony from witnesses about what happened at the border," said Jonathan Feinberg, an attorney with Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin. "Government officials are going to have to answer pointed questions about why they set out to deter immigration by harming parents and children."

"We are grateful that the court recognized that these mothers and children deserve the opportunity to seek justice for the severe trauma they suffered—and continue to suffer—as a result of the Trump administration's 'zero-tolerance' family separation policy,"said Kate Melloy Goettel, associate director of litigation at the National Immigrant Justice Center. "We believe that once the court hears their stories and reviews the evidence, justice will prevail and find that these families have a right to compensatory damages that will help them access resources they need to heal."

The US government has admitted to separating at least 4,300 children from their parents or guardians after they crossed the southwestern US border. Reports indicate that the government continues to separate immigrant families entering the United States.

A copy of the court decision is here.

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The American Immigration Council works to strengthen America by shaping how America thinks about and acts toward immigrants and immigration and by working toward a more fair and just immigration system that opens its doors to those in need of protection and unleashes the energy and skills that immigrants bring. The Council brings together problem solvers and employs four coordinated approaches to advance change—litigation, research, legislative and administrative advocacy, and communications. Follow the latest Council news and information on and Twitter @immcouncil.

The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. Visit and follow @NIJC.