(CN) — Describing how an immigration officer taunted her by saying “Happy Mother’s Day” as her 5-year-old son was ripped away at the border, a Guatemalan woman joined seven immigrant families Monday in demanding millions of dollars in damages from the Trump administration.
Represented by Arnold & Porter; the American Immigration Council; the National Immigrant Justice Center; and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, the families brought their claims administratively with the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
The Federal Tort Claims Act gives U.S. agencies six months to respond before a potential lawsuit.
Representatives with the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment about the claims, which accuse immigration officers of withholding information and sometimes mocking the families while taking their children away.
Despite now being reunited with their parents, many of the children are said to remain traumatized. The claims describe one 7-year-old girl who won’t sleep without her mother and a 6-year-old boy who is reluctant to eat.
Since its zero-tolerance policy took effect last year — a response to the influx of asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border by Central American refugees — the Trump administration has by its own estimates separated more than 2,000 families.
Because agencies kept inadequate records as the policy was implemented, however, government watchdogs maintain that the total number of separated families is much higher.
Monday’s claim from the Guatemalan woman alleges the United States held her and her son in May in a temporary detention facility that had been nicknamed “hielera,” Spanish for ice box. She says she was one of four women taunted by an immigration officer about having their children taken away from them.
Days later, another immigration officer allegedly woke the woman up at about 5 a.m. with instructions that she bathe and clothe her son. Her son speaks only the indigenous Guatemalan language of Mam. As the boy was taken into another room, she says she begged that they be allowed to stay together, then asked that they be deported together to Guatemala rather than separated.
“The officer laughed,” the claim says. “He made fun of her indigenous accent and said, laughingly, ‘it’s not that easy.’”
After the family was reunited in July, they were held in a family detention center until November.
Stanton Jones, a lawyer for the families, said the government’s “inexplicable cruelty” demands monetary damages.
“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.”
HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer declined to comment on the specific claims, but emphasized that HHS “plays no role in the apprehension or initial detention” of children, including those whom immigration authorities separated from their parents.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.