CT Families Sue Officials for Forcible Family Separation at U.S.-Mexico Border

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As the Trump administration’s family separation policy comes under renewed national scrutiny, two families in Connecticut have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and four former high-ranking government officials. The Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School filed the lawsuit, which seeks justice for the harms suffered in 2018 by then-14-year-old Viky Sarai Flores Benitez and her mother, Ana Delmi Benitez Alvarado, along with then-9-year-old J.S.R. and his father, Javin Benigno Santos Galvez. 

As alleged in the complaint, federal officials forcibly separated Viky and J.S.R. from their parents at a Texas detention center and transferred the children thousands of miles away to Connecticut. The lawsuit maintains that the Biden administration has failed to remedy the harms done to these and thousands of other families.


The lawsuit alleges that the defendants’ forcible separation of the child plaintiffs from their parents, in an effort to coerce them to forfeit their right to seek asylum and to deter other asylum-seekers, constituted torture and inhumane treatment under the Alien Tort Statute. The suit additionally alleges tortious conduct by the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act and emphasizes the culpability of named defendants in the implementation and enforcement of family separations during the Trump administration. 

The suit names four former Trump administration officials who were directly involved in orchestrating the “Zero Tolerance” policy: Senior Advisor Stephen Miller, Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. As of Aug. 30, Sessions and McAleenan had been personally served. Service of process on Nielsen and Miller was ongoing. 

According to the suit, J.S.R. was nine years old when he fled Honduras with his father, Javin Benigno Santos Galvez, to escape political persecution. Apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, he and his father were locked in a “hielera” — an icebox — in a Customs and Border Protection detention facility in South Texas in June 2018. While J.S.R. was asleep, according to the suit, immigration agents took his father away and lied to the child about his father’s whereabouts. J.S.R. was then brought to a residential center in Connecticut while his father remained detained in Texas. Their first communication occurred three weeks later via telephone. Since reunited, the now 13-year-old J.S.R. still fears being separated from his father, hesitant to participate in overnights with friends due to fear that he will never see his father again. Galvez still has nightmares about his time in detention and the forcible taking of his son, and has difficulty sleeping to this day, according to the suit.

Viky was 14 years old when she and her mother, Ana Delmi Benitez Alvarado, fled El Salvador in May 2018 in fear for their safety, according to the suit. They, too, were detained in the Texas “icebox” facility. Viky was sent to shower, and when she returned, her mother was gone, and immigration authorities pretended not to know where she was, according to the suit. Viky was then transported to the same residential center in Connecticut as J.S.R. The suit contends that it took weeks for immigration officials to locate Viky’s mother; their first communication took place after several weeks apart. Since their reunion, the now 19-year-old Viky still suffers from the trauma caused by the family separation. When a teacher raised immigration issues in class, Viky could not hold back tears, the suit maintains. Benitez Alvardo fears she will never see her daughter again whenever Viky goes to school or whenever she encounters law enforcement. 

Four years ago, J.S.R. and Viky — represented by the Yale Law School Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic and Connecticut Legal Services — filed emergency federal lawsuits in the District of Connecticut challenging their forcible separation from their parents by the Trump administration and seeking their reunification, in freedom. On July 13, 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Victor Bolden issued a ruling that detailed the ordeals suffered by both families. The court recognized that “the constitutional rights of J.S.R. and V.F.B. have been violated” and resulted in “irreparable harm.” The government agreed that there had been a violation of substantive and procedural due process, with “no notice and no fair opportunity for a hearing” before “[depriving] the children of their right to family integrity.” The lawsuit resulted reuniting the children with their parents in freedom in Connecticut, where they continue to live today.

Now, not only do J.S.R. and Viky and their parents seek to hold the United States government accountable, they also seek to hold accountable the individual actors who bore special responsibility for the “Zero Tolerance” policy. According to the suit, family separations were not an unforeseen consequence of the policy, but the intended goal of the U.S. government’s attempt to deter families from seeking refuge in the United States. The suit maintains that families such as Javin and J.S.R. and Ana and Viky bear the scars of a policy that violated international and domestic laws.

“This lawsuit represents all the harm this country caused me when I entered, when this country took away my child and made my daughter cry,” Ana Delmi Benitez Alvarado said. “I hope that the pain and suffering this experience caused me never happens to any family or any child ever again. The pain and trauma are severe.” 

On the importance of filing suit, Javin Benigno Santos Galvez said, “This case represents everything we went through. What we went through was awful and we hope it never happens to anyone ever again. No one deserves to go through this.”

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are among the thousands of asylum-seeking families whom the government irreparably traumatized pursuant to the family separation policy — a policy that defendants and other senior officials at the White House, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security crafted, issued, and executed to deter asylum seekers from entering the United States. “With force and deceit,” according to the lawsuit, the defendants caused extraordinary trauma, in violation of U.S. and international law prohibitions against torture. 

The plaintiffs contend that the Biden administration has insufficiently addressed the effects of Trump-era immigration policies. They note that talks on providing compensation to all forcibly separated families are at a standstill, that the Biden administration still upholds some Trump immigration policies, and that the Department of Justice continues to actively litigate cases against families seeking redress. With no other avenues to obtain justice, according to the clinic, the families in this case now pursue legal recourse. 

The Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, a part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale School, represents immigrants, low-wage workers, and their organizations in labor, immigration, criminal justice, civil rights, and other matters.