A new lawsuit filed on behalf of a Honduran family is challenging what lawyers claim was deliberate cruelty on the part of the U.S. government and a federal contractor when the family's members were detained for over a month, ill treatment that the suit claims caused lasting harm.
New York-based Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) and law firm Loevy & Loevy filed the lawsuit (pdf) last week in the Chicago-based U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois for Lucinda Padilla-Gonzales and her two children. The filing names as defendants the federal government, the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, and Heartland Human Care Services, Inc.
Federally contracted Heartland ran the now shuttered Casa Guadalupe shelter—which had been the subject of abuse allegations— in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines where the children, then 5 and 14 years old, were detained as their mother was held over 1,000 miles away at an ICE facility in Texas.
"Make no mistake: federal immigration agents did not have to wrest two children from their mother and deny them so much as a phone call for more than a month," Anand Swaminathan, an attorney with Loevy & Loevy, said in a statement Friday. "These federal agents made a choice, a cruel and heinous choice, to deliberately inflict pain and trauma upon a family seeking refuge."
According to the lawsuit, Padilla-Gonzales and her children, who were fleeing political violence directed at them, were separated—"without warning or explanation"—by federal agents upon their entry to the U.S., keeping them in separate facilities for over one month. The agents took that action with a purpose in mind, according to the lawsuit:
Out of a desire to deliberately inflict cruelty upon a Latino family from Central America, federal agents dragged 14-year old D.A. and 5-year old A.A. away from their mother, crying and screaming, and shipped them off to a shelter far away.
The children's father was already in the U.S., but the government chose to detain the children rather than reunite them with him.
The separation caused "immense trauma" to the three asylum-seekers, the lawsuit states. "The government intended this cruelty," the claim continues, "in order to coerce Lucinda to give up their rights, including her and her children’s asylum claims, and leave the United States."
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The alleged cruelty imposed by the shelter included preventing the children from calling their mother, failing to address the trauma they entered the facility with, and imposing upon them "a regimented existence in which they were denied basic features of childhood," including preventing the siblings from hugging each other.
From the lawsuit:
The United States also recklessly disregarded Lucinda's physical safety and health during her detention. Government agents confiscated crutches that a hospital in the United States had provided to help Lucinda recover from a leg injury, caused her to suffer a traumatic brain injury while being transported in a government vehicle, and ignored medical advice from doctors, deciding to "treat" her head injuries with ibuprofen despite doctors having recommended that she be cared for at a hospital.
The separation of the family members, the filing asserts, was "inflicted deliberately because of their race and national original" and imposed "to torment and traumatize the family" to the point of making them abandon their asylum claims.
The separation had a broader message than to just the Padilla-Gonzales family—"it also served to deter families from Central American countries like Honduras from seeking asylum in the United States," the suit adds.
"This is a critical time to stand up for the rights of asylum seekers," ASAP staff attorney Zachary Manfredi said in a statement. "Our clients seek to hold the government and government contractors accountable for abuses in detention and hope that this case will bring those abuses to light."
Swaminathan added that "the family is bringing this lawsuit to fight for the truth and to demand justice."
"Their courage is to be admired," he said.