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Immigration Action

AG Ferguson leads multistate lawsuit against border policy

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Fearing irreparable harm to children, Washington’s leading officials asked the courts to speed their review of the Trump Administration’s policy of indefinite detention for migrant families.

The lawsuit, announced in front of the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac last week, seeks to challenge the constitutionality of the family separation policy and President Donald Trump’s new executive order meant to replace it.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson followed that announcement with an additional request this week, asking a U.S. district court judge to immediately order the federal government to provide details about and access to victims of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy on an expedited schedule. Ferguson led a coalition of 18 attorneys general from other states seeking to end the policies of family separation and prolonged detention.

President Trump announced last week his administration would now keep families at the U.S. border in detention “during the pendency of” their immigration cases. That could easily mean months of detention (or longer) for some asylum-seekers. The new order is intended to replace an earlier one that separated parents from their children.

Between October 1, 2017, and May 31, 2018, at least 2,700 children were severed from their parents, many detained in caged enclosures. Of that number 1,995 were separated over the last six weeks, an average of 45 children taken from their parents each day. The policy drew wide-scale public outrage, and prompted a policy revision by the administration.

“The motion for expedited discovery is necessary because hundreds of separated parents are in federal custody and the administration can move them to other facilities at any time without notice,” Ferguson warned. “The motion asks the court to order the federal government to cooperate in facilitating access to detained parents and to report to the court on the progress of such efforts.”

“The federal government has an obligation to reunite children with their parents immediately, and an obligation to cease any and all policies that ignore the due process rights of families seeking asylum or refuge at any of our borders,” said Gov. Jay Inslee, who supported the Attorney General’s announcement.

The states joining Ferguson’s lawsuit include Massachusetts, California, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

“This case, like all our cases against this administration, says something important about who we are as a people,” Ferguson said. “We will stand up for the Constitution, basic decency and fundamental American values.”

In support of the motion, the states included declarations from parents and interviews with children separated by immigration officials as a result of the policy. The states also filed other declarations from immigration rights workers, elected officials and medical experts.

“The Trump Administration’s family separation policy is not over—it continues to harm thousands of parents and children,” Ferguson said. “The gut-wrenching stories we have heard from families demonstrate just how much it violates basic decency and fundamental American values. The policy also violates the Constitution, and I will continue to fight to put an end to it.”

Ferguson’s request for expedited review, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, asks that Judge Marsha Pechman order officials to cooperate with state requests to interview parents in federal detention. Some states have faced procedural difficulties or been denied access to federal detention centers and other federal locations that house affected immigrants.

Included in Ferguson’s request were the declarations of dozens of experts in developmental psychology and public health, discussing the dangers of separating families and housing immigrant families together in barracks housing. Other declarations include those given directly by parents separated from their children and interviews with separated children.

A mother who fled Honduras after receiving death threats, currently held in Washington, described the experience of being separated from her 6-year-old son shortly after crossing the border.

“My son Jelsin and I were separated,” she related. “I was not told where he was being taken. They only told me he would be a ward of the state. To calm my son down, I told him it would only be for three days, although I really did not know. We had never been apart.”

She was not able to speak to her son for almost a month. When she did contact him, her son was nearly mute from trauma and grief.

Her story was common among the narratives.

“Children have reported experiencing distress and confusion at being separated from parents,” reported Jennifer Podkul, policy director at Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a national nonprofit organization providing free legal services to unaccompanied immigrant children “For example, a 7-year-old girl reported crying throughout two days spent in a Border Patrol holding facility, and asking to be reunited with her mother. Other children have reported worrying about their parents, because they did not know what happened to them after the separation.”

In other declarations, a 13-year-old girl was not able to say goodbye to her father when immigration officials separated them. The investigator wrote that the girl “reported that the guards threatened the people that they detained with separating them and sending them back home, she overheard them telling others they would be jailed for about 10 or 15 years, which scared her. The younger children were crying.”

Another girl in Washington is working with a therapist because she has nightmares. Immigration officials also separated her from her father shortly after she arrived in the United States.

Immigration officials took one mother’s children as she was in court. Upon returning and realizing this, she said, “I became physically unwell when I found out that my little boys had been taken away.”

Many parents related the difficulty they had had in contacting their children, and not receiving information on how to find their children from immigration officials. More than one parent relayed that after asking for weeks, their home country’s embassy was able to provide them with the location of their children.

“Immigrant children seeking safe haven in the United States should never be placed in detention facilities,” said Colleen Kraft, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Studies of detained immigrants have shown that children and parents may suffer negative physical and emotional symptoms from detention, including anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Conditions in U.S. detention facilities, which include forcing children to sleep on cement floors, open toilets, constant light exposure, insufficient food and water, no bathing facilities, and extremely cold temperatures, are traumatizing for children. No child should ever have to endure these conditions.”

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