UPDATE: U.S. District Court Judge Victor Bolden has declared the separation of two immigrant children in Connecticut from their parents unconstitutional. After recently being intercepted weeks ago by officials near the southern U.S. border, 9-year-old Honduran boy and 14-year-old El Salvadoran girl, identified as JSR and VFB in court documents, were relocated to a shelter in Noank, Connecticut. Judge Bolden’s decision, which orders the government to “take immediate steps to ameliorate the grave harm” caused by the separation of the children from their parents, is the first ruling in the country to find the government’s treatment of such cases in violation of the constitution. The court specifically ordered the government to deliver the children’s parents to Bridgeport July 18 for a scheduled status conference, provide daily video-conferencing between the children and their parents and propose a treatment plan. Next week, that begins with the children and their parents seeing each other face-to-face for the first time in months. “Judge Bolden’s ruling acknowledges the deep harm that the government inflicted on VFB and JSR by forcibly separating them from their parents,” said Yale Law School intern Hannah Schoen, who is assisting on the case with the college’s Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic. “The children must be brought back together with their loving parents in an environment where they are safe, comforted, and stress-free – in the community, not in a tent city in the desert.”
With the status of an estimated 2,000-plus immigrant children separated from their families hanging in the balance, two Connecticut organizations went to court Wednesday for an emergency hearing on behalf of two who have ended up in Connecticut.
Identified in court documents by their initials, 14-year-old El Salvadoran girl VFB and 9-year-old Honduran boy JSR were taken from their parents on about May 11 and June 11, respectively, and are the only two children in Connecticut who have been identified as among approximately 2,000 to 2,200 recently separated by U.S. immigration officials under ramped-up enforcement.
The families of both children are considered by legal volunteers to be fleeing imminent danger in their home countries, which advocates say would support bids for asylum.
Expressing dismay at the suffering of VFB, JSR and their parents, Connecticut Legal Services deputy director Joshua Perry said Thursday that CLS worked with Yale Law School’s Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic faculty and students to file complaints on the children’s behalf July 2. Clinic professor Marisol Orihuela argued the case in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport Wednesday before Judge Victor A. Bolden, demanding immediate relief for for the two children, who Perry said are experiencing ongoing trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder associated with being separated from their parents and confined to a shelter in Noank.
“It is absolutely true that there are no physical cages,” Perry said of conditions at the Noank facility. “It is more like a group home than a jail, and there is a caring staff. We give them full marks for that. But this is not about Noank. This is about children who have been separated from their parents. There is just no substitute for a parent’s love, and these parents are ready to give that love.”
Perry said the children and their parents are owed their freedom for injustices suffered at the hands of immigration officials.
Bolden took the plaintiffs’ claims under advisement Wednesday and continued the hearing to July 18, while a rally was being held outside the court in support of reunification. Inside, via video link, VFB’s and JSR’s parents, also in U.S. custody, gave an emotional appeal to have their children returned to them.
CLS and the Yale clinic identify U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan and other officials in the two original complaints filed July 2.
In the complaint filed on behalf of JSR, Perry noted the boy fled Honduras with his father after his grandparents were murdered and a body was left in the family’s backyard.
After intercepting JSR and his father near the southern U.S. border, U.S. agents’ “response to the plight of JSR and his father was to hold them in freezing conditions near the border, separate the young child from his father while the child was sleeping and refuse to provide JSR accurate information about his father,” the complaint stated. “The federal government has put 2,000 miles between a frightened 9-year-old boy and the most important person in his life, causing JSR acute psychological harm and exposing him to the significant risk of long-term mental, emotional and physical damage as a result of his trauma.”
Similarly, a complaint filed the same day on behalf of VFB noted the girl and her mother recently fled violence in El Salvador and were intercepted together in the United States. “On the pretext of taking her to bathe, government officials lured VFB away from her mother at a detention facility in Texas and transferred her to a shelter in Connecticut, thousands of miles from her mother,” the complaint stated, calling the tactic of seizure illegal. “VFB was held incommunicado from her mother for over a month and remains physically separated from her to this day. The forced separation of VFB from her mother was traumatic, and the ongoing separation continues to cause VFB. anguish and fear, and threatens even greater long-term mental, emotional and physical harm.”
Perry said both children were in the courthouse Wednesday but did not participate in the actual court proceedings. The first time they were able to speak to their parents via video feed since being separated from them was July 9—one and two months, respectively, since the children were first taken away from their parents. Perry called the virtual reunion “extraordinarily moving.”
In public comments announcing a “Zero-Tolerance” policy in April, Sessions said unlawful immigration is a worsening problem in the United States that requires decisive action.
Amid public outcry, on June 10 President Donald Trump walked back a policy on separating children by signing an executive order requiring detained families to be kept together.
In a speech June 15 in Philadelphia, Sessions reiterated his contention that illegal immmigration must be curtailed. “The situation at our Southwest Border is unacceptable,” he said. “To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice.”
Joining Connecticut Legal Services on behalf of the separated children are volunteers from the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School with the help of legal interns. One of those interns, Carolyn O’Connor, called the situation “deeply concerning, since the analysis points to the fact that the harm being done to these children is immediate and it is compounding.”
“They are being put through a racist policy and put through harm that the government can stop any day,” O’Connor added.
Perry added that the harm being caused to his clients was outlined in testimony by Dr. Andres Martin of Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, who has diagnosed PTSD in both children. “This is not something that therapy can resolve,” Perry said. “But there is a definitive step the government can take to remedy the situation.”
Perry said the children’s case “should have an impact on every single American. We should care that our government has ripped thousands of children from their families. It bothers me as an American, it bothers me as a parent and it bothers me as a lawyer. Here you have a 9-year-old boy who stands barely three feet tall and a 14-year-old girl who have been ripped from their parents. We need to fix this problem and we need to fix this yesterday.”