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Lawyers file suit in AZ on behalf of asylum-seeking families forced to separate at border

A group of lawyers have filed suit in Arizona on behalf of four migrant families who underwent forced separations at the border under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policies in 2018. 

Thousands of children were separated from their parents under zero tolerance, including families who approached a port of entry to ask for asylum. Many took months or years to be reunited.

According to court filings part of the suit filed this week, one mother, identified only as M.S.E. was not able to reach her son for approximately two months after they were separated at the Arizona border. The filing says one detention officer told M.S.E. she would never see her son again, and she and other parents were told multiple times that they would be deported and their children would be put up for adoption. 

Tami Goodlette, director of litigation at the Texas advocacy group RAICES, is one of several lawyers representing the families. They’d hoped to get compensation through a settlement with the Biden administration. 

"Settling in a case like this would be preferable for our clients to spare them having to go through the traumatic experience of testifying in a case, from having to relive what happened to them when their children were taken from them," she said. 

But Goodlette says lawyers were forced to take the case to court after the Biden administration dropped out of settlement negotiations late last year. Cases that had been put on hold to make room for those discussions are now being filed across the country. The Arizona suit, filed this week, is one of more than 20 nationwide.

Danielle Desaulniers Stempel, a lawyer with D.C.-based Hogan Lovells US LLP, another firm involved in the suit, says some details of the four families' ordeals in detention and during their separation have been documented in these court filings for the first time.  

"I think we're all aware of this problem in the abstract, but seeing this facts laid out on paper and hearing from these clients makes it really apparent how much they have suffered," she said. 

Stempel says the Biden administration has already tried to get some of the cases dismissed, but has not yet responded to the Arizona complaint. 

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.