AG Ferguson asks court to accelerate family separation case

AG’s motion includes declarations from families affected by separation policy

SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson asked a federal judge July 2, 2018 to order the federal government to provide details about and access to victims of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy on an expedited schedule. Last week, Attorney General Ferguson led a coalition of 18 attorneys general in filing a lawsuit seeking to end the family separation policy permanently.

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. 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.

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 motion includes 99 declarations in all, and they can be found here, here and here.

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: “From there, my son Jelsin and I were separated. 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, she said, “He was only able to say a few words. He was just crying. … I cannot express the pain I have felt being apart from him.”

“The Trump Administration’s family separation policy is not over – it continues to harm thousands of parents and children,” said Ferguson. “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.”

The motion for expedited discovery, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, requests that Judge Marsha Pechman order several actions to ensure that the Attorney General’s Office can collect information in a timely fashion.

If the judge grants the motion, it will require the federal government to respond to the states’ requests for information on an accelerated timeline and 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.

Ferguson also requests weekly status conferences with the court during the period of expedited discovery.

Victims’ stories from Washington

In addition to the filing, the attorneys general included 99 declarations. Some declarations, given by experts in developmental psychology and public health, discuss 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.

Interviews and testimonies by parents and children voiced the sadness, distress and frustration the family separation policy has caused.

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.”

In attempting to recount her experiences, the girl “had a hard time talking during most of the interview, was visibly upset and broke down in tears frequently.”

A 15-year-old girl identified as G and fleeing threats from a member of a criminal association in her home country, told the investigator “[Immigration officials] told her mother that G would be taken to another place where she would be able to visit her. G and her mother said goodbye to each other while crying, but G’s mother comforted her, saying she was going to visit her wherever she was going. Only later did G realize this was not true. As she recounted this moment, G was sobbing and visibly distraught.”

G also described seeing a 4-year-old girl crying inconsolably, and watching as an immigration official reprimanded the girl and turned her away.

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.”

Most 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.

A mother, fleeing death threats to her and her family, described the relief she had at finally contacting her daughter, but her daughter was unable to speak “because of how strongly she was sobbing.”

Though many families were seeking asylum, a number reported that immigration officials had never asked them why they sought refuge in the United States.

The motion includes costs the policy has imposed on states involved in the lawsuit, as well.

Ferguson and the states request that Judge Pechman consider their motion by July 13.

Ferguson leads a coalition of 17 states in the lawsuit: 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.

Policy history

On April 6, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on the United States’ southern border. Instead of making case-specific evaluations of individual cases, respecting due process rights and family integrity, the Trump Administration began prosecuting all possible immigration crimes, detaining all accused adults, even those with a legitimate asylum claim. The intended and acknowledged effect of this policy has been the separation of parents and children at the border.

The Trump Administration has been clear that the purpose of the forced separation policy is not to protect children, but rather to deter potential immigrants from coming to the United States. As Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said recently: “Nobody likes seeing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms … but we have to make sure that [the Department of Homeland Security’s] laws are understood through the soundbite culture that we live in.”

On June 20, President Trump issued an order purporting to end his family separation policy. Following a close review of the order, the Attorney General’s Office found two significant problems. First, the order does nothing to reunify families already torn apart by the Trump Administration’s policy. Second, the order is riddled with so many caveats as to be meaningless. For example, the order requires appropriations, although the total amount is unknown, as is the timeline for when or if such an appropriation would happen. It also relies on a federal judge approving a plan to indefinitely detain children, a scenario Ferguson described as unlikely.

In a separate, class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal judge in California issued a preliminary injunction on June 26. Among other relief, the judge ordered the Trump Administration to end the practice of separating families unless there is a danger to the child, and to promptly reunify families who had been separated as a result of the policy.

Solicitor General Noah Purcell and Assistant Attorney General Laura Clinton are leading the case for Washington.

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office prevailed in all six cases against the Trump Administration that are completed and there are no more appeals. That does not include three additional successful outcomes that have been or could be appealed, including blocking President Trump’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military and his attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

 

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