When Dania heard her 17-year-old son’s voice for the first time in almost a month, she sobbed just knowing he was alive. Last June he called her cellphone from a detention center in Texas and told her through tears that he thought she had died.
“To me, it was a miracle to hear his voice again,” she said, via phone from her home in Guatemala. “Before the call, I imagined so many bad things that could have happened to him.”
Dania, who requested a pseudonym to protect her privacy, is part of a group of eight families that were separated after crossing the border last year and are now seeking $6 million each in damages from the U.S. government for their ongoing trauma. The government acknowledged that it separated more than 2,700 families under its zero-tolerance policy, and a new report found that thousands more may have been torn apart.
The claims, which lawyers filed with the government on Monday, detail the painful experiences of people who said their children were pried from their arms by mocking immigration officers ― including one who told a group of women “Happy Mother’s Day” after saying their children would be taken away, according to one claimant ― and given no information about when or whether they would see their kids again.
The claims also describe the trauma that continues to haunt these families. For example, as a result of the family separations, a 7-year-old girl can no longer sleep without being in her mother’s arms, and a 7-year-old boy refuses to attend school for fear of being separated from his mother once more.
“These children and their parents have experienced horrific, life-altering trauma that was intentionally inflicted on them by our government,” Stanton Jones, a partner at Arnold & Porter who is representing some of the families, said in a statement. “No amount of money can undo the damage inflicted by our government on these children and their mothers, but the government must be held accountable for the impact of its policies.”
Dania said that on June 6, a day after she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her son, immigration officials took him away without her consent while she was being interviewed by a Customs and Border Protection officer. When she asked where her son had been taken, an immigration officer “responded that the children would be sent away to war,” her claim says.
For the next week, while she was detained in the U.S., Dania had no idea where her son was. She said she cried constantly, couldn’t eat or sleep and developed intense headaches.
“It was like they were killing me,” she said. “This is the worst pain I’ve felt in my life.”
On June 15, Dania said, she was deported to Guatemala, despite having told an immigration officer that she feared for her life back home. She worried that she would never see her child again.
When her son, now 18, called her at the end of June, she said, she was overjoyed, but after hanging up, she became worried again, since she had no idea if they would be reunited.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen to him,” Dania said. “I didn’t know if he was going to be sent back to my country or given up for adoption or sent to war.”
During the thick of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, child psychologists warned that the trauma of family separation could have lasting effects on children, impeding brain development and resulting in physical illnesses such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
Leticia, who said she was separated from her 5-year-old daughter for four months, said her daughter continues to feel the effects of the trauma.
“My daughter is not the same,” Leticia said in a statement put out by her lawyers. “To this day, if she drops something at home, she cries and begs me not to get mad at her or hit her. It breaks my heart to think of what she endured and how it has changed my beautiful, happy baby girl.”
In September, Dania was finally reunited with her son in Guatemala. According to her claim, she said they both suffer from depression as a result of the separation and are struggling to return to a normal life.
“It was very difficult for him because he thought I was dead,” she said. “Even today he hugs me and tells me he’s very happy I’m alive.”