Attorneys sue feds on behalf of immigrant children at Noank nonprofit

Connecticut attorneys sued the federal government this week on behalf of two Central American children housed in a Noank nonprofit shelter since being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Representing the children are Connecticut Legal Services and the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School, who described the children as asylum seekers who came to the Texas border with their parents needing relief from conditions in their countries.

"They were met here in the U.S. with cruel and inhumane treatment, separated from their parents, put in cages and transferred thousands of miles away and kept from talking to their parents for an extended period of time," said Joanne Lewis of Connecticut Legal Services in a news conference Friday in New Haven.

Attorneys said the children, a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador identified as V.F.B. and a 9-year-old boy from Honduras identified as J.S.R., were the only two in Connecticut known to be separated from their parents due to the Trump administration's short-lived zero-tolerance policy to prosecute all undocumented immigrants, including those asking for asylum.

Attorneys said the children are receiving excellent care in the custody of Noank Community Support Services, a nonprofit that offers a 12-bed shelter with a clinician, nurse, teacher and case managers on staff.

The two lawsuits call for reunification with the children's parents or transfers to suitable sponsors. Attorneys claim the forcible separation denied the children due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. Attorneys argue the separation and prolonged detention could create a "substantial risk of long-term and irreversible physiological, developmental and psychological damage" for the children.

In response, the U.S. Department of Justice argued Friday that the government already was facilitating a path for reunification for the families, and thousands of others.

A hearing in the case is scheduled Wednesday before U.S. District Court Judge Victor Bolden in Bridgeport.

'Doing well ... but they miss their parents'

Attorneys said V.F.B.'s mother is at a detention center in Encinal, Texas, and J.S.R.'s father is detained at a center in Los Fresnos, Texas.

The girl and her mother fled to the U.S. in May after V.F.B.'s stepfather was murdered, Lewis said. J.S.R. and his father came to the border in June after the boy's grandparents and his father's friend were murdered.

Lewis said that in detention facilities in Texas, V.F.B. was "taken to go for a shower and when she came back, her mother was gone."

J.S.R.'s father disappeared "while the boy was sleeping," she said.

Noank Community Support Services Executive Director Regina Moller said, "It took us a while to find their parents, but after locating them, they've been able to speak with them multiple times."

"They're doing well in the program, but obviously, they miss their parents," Moller said.

She did not comment on the litigation and said her organization was focused on compassion for children, not politics. But she said, "In general, we welcome any attempt at reunification."

DOJ: 'Already a process for reunification'

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle McConaghy filed a brief on Friday responding to the lawsuits. The Justice Department objected to the attorneys' push to have the parents present at Wednesday's hearing, arguing "there is already a process, which plaintiffs and their parents are part of, for reunification."

McConaghy said the U.S. District Court in Connecticut "lacks jurisdiction over any request to release plaintiffs' parents, as the parents are not plaintiffs in this case, are subject to mandatory detention, and are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Texas, outside the jurisdiction of this court."

The government already offered to facilitate telephone or video teleconferencing prior to Wednesday's hearing so the parents and children can decide whether to reunite in an immigration family detention center or to seek release to an appropriate sponsor, McConaghy wrote.

She added that the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement "fully intends to comply" with a court order issued in a California case requiring the government to reunify up to 3,000 children by July 26.

The Trump administration on Friday asked a federal judge for more time to safely reunify families, the New York Times reported.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump in a tweet called on Congress to "Fix our insane immigration laws now!"

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are named as defendants in the lawsuits.

Sessions announced the "zero-tolerance" policy in May, saying DHS "is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution ... If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple."

Democrats: 'No path or plan'

Trump in June issued an executive order temporarily halting the policy, saying he "didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated."

But at Friday's news conference, attorneys and Democrats blasted the federal government, arguing it had failed to adequately plan for reunification of children already separated from their parents.

"You put luggage in storage, you get a claim check. You go to a restaurant and give them your coat, you get a claim check. There is no claim check for people's children," said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, calling the "manufactured crisis at our border ... an outrage. It is child abuse."

Gov. Dannel Malloy described the situation as "utterly ... un-American. It is wrong and we're calling it out."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the government established "no path or plan to reunify those families."

"There's no information even as to the whereabouts of many of these families and their connections to each other," he said.

Blumenthal said even those not swayed by "heartbreaking" family separations should take note that a "tent city" established in El Paso, Texas, to temporarily house undocumented immigrants costs taxpayers about $1,600 per day per individual.

Moller said it costs less than $200 per person per day to house children at the Noank shelter, which is partly funded through a three-year, $1.7 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. The shelter usually houses unaccompanied immigrant children and is the only facility in the state licensed to house them after they are processed by the federal government. It's been doing so since the Obama administration.

Moller said there were "absolutely not" enough shelters to house separated children or "the influx of unaccompanied children that have been coming across." She said the federal government has asked the nonprofit, and others, to increase their beds.

The Noank shelter usually is at full capacity, said Moller, who added that Connecticut wasn't "looking for big detention centers. Those aren't caring. If you're a caring agency, you offer small volume, like someone with a home and an open door to refugees."

b.kail@theday.com

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