Separated migrant families demand millions from US agencies

FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2018 file photo, an asylum-seeking boy from Central America runs down a hallway after arriving from an immigration detention center to a shelter in San Diego. Lawyers for eight immigrant families separated under Trump administration policy filed claims Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, against the U.S. government demanding $6 million each in damages for what they describe as lasting trauma. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

HOUSTON — Eight immigrant families demanded millions of dollars in damages Monday from the Trump administration for separating them, including a Guatemalan woman who alleged an officer said her 5-year-old son would be taken and then taunted, "Happy Mother's Day."

In claims filed with the U.S. government Monday, 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 even after being reunited with their parents, 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 Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

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 her claim , the Guatemalan woman alleges she was detained in May with her son in a type of temporary detention facility nicknamed a "hielera," or icebox in Spanish. The immigration officer who taunted her and three other women told them the law had changed, that their children would be taken away, and that they would be deported, the claim alleges.

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. Her son only spoke the indigenous Guatemalan language of Mam.

"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.

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