Attorneys call on feds to reunite parents with immigrant children housed in Noank

People rally in front of the U.S. District Court in Bridgeport on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, before the hearing for the two children separated from their families and being housed in a Noank shelter. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)
People rally in front of the U.S. District Court in Bridgeport on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, before the hearing for the two children separated from their families and being housed in a Noank shelter. (Lindsay Boyle/The Day)

Bridgeport — The two children who have been living in a Noank shelter since being separated from their parents earlier this year have post-traumatic stress disorder and should rejoin their parents “as expeditiously as possible,” a doctor said Wednesday during a U.S. District Court hearing.

The hearing came after attorneys last week sued the federal government on behalf of 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.

The pair have been staying in a 12-bed shelter run by Noank Community Support Services. The nonprofit is the only one in Connecticut that receives “unaccompanied alien children” under a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program. A three-year, $1.7 million grant from the same department funds the shelter, which has a clinician, a nurse, a teacher and case managers on staff.

In court, Yale professor Marisol Orihuela urged Judge Victor A. Bolden to reunite the children with their parents immediately and outside of detention.

Orihuela called Dr. Andres Martin as a witness. Martin, also a Yale professor and medical director of Children's Psychiatric Inpatient Service at the Yale New Haven Children's Hospital, described the children’s PTSD and echoed Orihuela’s plea.

V.F.B. and J.S.R. are two of an estimated 3,000 who remain separated from their families because of a controversial zero-tolerance policy announced in April. Under it, U.S. officials jailed every adult caught illegally crossing the border or trying to do so, both misdemeanor offenses. Officials sent accompanying children to warehouses or smaller shelters like the one in Noank.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he implemented the policy in reaction to a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018.

Amid a backlash, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the separation in favor of jailing families together.  A California federal judge ruled Monday, however, that Trump’s effort to hold immigrant families in long-term facilities was a "cynical attempt" to undo a longstanding court settlement, the Associated Press reported.

Attorneys representing the children — they’re with Connecticut Legal Services and the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School — claim the forcible separation denied the children due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. In an opening statement, Bolden said the California ruling makes it likely that claim has merit.

With the help of a translator in court, V.F.B.’s mother and J.S.R.’s father watched and listened via teleconference from a Texas detention center. The pair were disconnected twice during the first hour of the hearing, which began 45 minutes later than its scheduled 11:30 a.m. start.

A representative of Connecticut Legal Services said the judge took what he heard on advisement and, short of setting a status hearing for July 18, made no ruling. The representative said the group hopes the federal government will move to reunite the children before that but won't consider the case over until the families are together outside of custody.

The U.S. Department of Justice has argued that the government already is facilitating a path for reunification of the families.

Before the hearing, almost 100 people gathered in front of the courthouse to support the separated families. Vanesa Suarez, an organizer with New Haven-based Unidad Latina en Acción, said attorneys had motioned to get the parents there in person to no avail.

“We cannot expect children to understand the concept of borders,” said Suarez, whose own sister was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about four years ago. “What do you tell these children when they’re being ripped from their families? We want them to know that we stand in solidarity with all of them. Our children are not guinea pigs.”

During the rally, Jonathan Gonzalez Cruz called on participants to imagine a time they had been separated from their children, such as for a split second in a mall.

“Imagine the fear that goes through you, and then the relief when you see them again,” said Gonzalez Cruz, who’s a civic engagement coordinator with Connecticut Students for a Dream. “There are parents right now that don’t have that relief.”

Afterward, he said he feels connected to the separated children because his own father was deported to Mexico when he was a sophomore in high school.

“It’s important to show support to let the two children know there are people rooting for them,” Gonzalez Cruz said. “It’s also to show this work is important ... because if this case is effective in reuniting the families, it’s going to set precedent.”

Another speaker, 21-year-old Larissa Martinez, thanked those in attendance for their support.

“We don’t get to come to a rally and go home and forget about it,” said the Yale student, who came to this country eight years ago from Mexico City. “Everything is threatened by the fear of deportation, of having ICE knocking at my door, at my family’s door.”

A majority of those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are fleeing from violent Central American countries. Many seek asylum, which is a legal process.

l.boyle@theday.com

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