ALBEQUERQUE, NM – On February 5, 2021, Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice), Ian Ross and Erica Perdoma of Stumphauzer, Foslid, Sloman, Ross & Kolaya, PLLC and David Urias and Josh Ewing of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward filed a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) lawsuit seeking justice for a now-six-year-old girl who was separated from her father at the border in 2017 when she was just two years old. This separation occurred during the U.S. Government’s “pilot program” for Family Separation that predated the official policy that was announced in 2018. Recently released report from the Inspector General for the Department of Justice has revealed that the Trump Administration’s plan for what would become its Family Separation policy began shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. It is now known that at least fifty children under the age of five were separated from their parents between December of 2017 and April of 2018 as a result of this barbaric policy. The report cites many failures on the part of the Sessions Department of Justice that led to the arrest and detention of this family.
“Roberto” and his two-year old daughter “Sofia” were ensnared by the Government’s ill-fated policy when they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border fleeing Guatemala in July of 2017. At the time, Sofia weighed twenty-five pounds, stood twenty-five inches tall, and was barely verbal. She and her father speak an indigenous language, and Sofia knew no English or Spanish. Once apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), they were detained in a cell with other men until CBP officers came and took Sofia from her father’s arms. Roberto was prosecuted for a misdemeanor immigration charge and deported nearly four months later. Sofia’s mother died in Guatemala during this time period. Her father’s attempts to speak with her by phone to comfort her while he was detained by ICE were unavailing due to her age and her limited understanding of her predicament. Although Sofia could have gone directly to her grandmother’s home in Immokalee, Florida, she spent approximately five months in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and two foster homes until she was finally able to join her grandmother in Florida.
“This complaint seeks damages from the government for its negligence and infliction of emotional distress on this very young child. This case is particularly tragic because of the child’s age and her inability to fathom what was happening to her after she was taken from her father. The trauma to such a young child under these circumstances is as extraordinary as it was tragic as it was caused by so many missteps and miscalculations by the government. She likely faces a lifetime of coping with the harm she has suffered at the hands of our government,” Lisa Lehner, AI Justice Litigation Director, said.
The government’s policy of forced family separation upended the lives of thousands of parents and children, including infants and small children, like Sofia. This unthinkable, cruel policy was not accidental. It was intentionally designed to deter families like Roberto and Sofia from coming to the U.S. and the policy was carried out with reckless disregard to the harm it would cause. The Family Separation policy continued through 2018, causing untold trauma and despite dire warnings from many, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, about the serious consequences of family separation on children’s mental health and well-being. This lawsuit is the second FTCA case that Americans for Immigrant Justice has filed on behalf of a child who was separated by the U.S. government at the border.
Cheryl Little, AI Justice Executive Director, notes, “Over the course of twenty-plus years representing immigrant children, we have borne witness to unspeakable trauma and human rights abuses. Yet, nothing could have prepared us for the widespread and lasting harm that the family separation crisis has caused and continues to cause.”
David Urias and Josh Ewing of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward join AI Justice as Co-counsel in this case. “To think that children like Sofia were taken from the arms of their parents right here in New Mexico by the federal government is incredibly disturbing. This is not an immigration issue – it is an issue of humanity and compassion. This lawsuit will hopefully shed light on the deplorable practices and policies adopted by the federal government during the past administration and help to ensure that this type of family destruction never happens on American soil again,” said David Urias, partner in the Albuquerque law firm.
Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice) is an award-winning non-profit law firm that protects and promotes the basic human rights of immigrants. In Florida and on a national level, it champions the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children; advocates for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence; serves as a watchdog on immigration detention practices and policies; fights to keep families informed, empowered and together; and pursues redress on behalf of immigrant groups with particular and compelling claims to justice.