A Guatemalan woman who says her 7-year-old son was forcibly taken from her after the two of them crossed into the United States to seek asylum is suing the U.S. government, saying that the separation violated rights given to her by both the Constitution and international conventions.
Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, 38, says in the lawsuit filed in the federal district court in Washington on Tuesday that more than a month has passed since she has seen her son, Darwin.
Mejia-Mejia fled Guatemala seeking the asylum in the United States after facing violence and death threats from her husband toward her and her son, the lawsuit states. The two crossed the border near San Luis, Ariz., on May 19 and were placed in a holding cell after surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Two days later, her son, who is named as “D.M.” in the complaint, was taken from her.
“Men dressed in green uniforms (border agents) told Ms. M. they needed to take her son and would not tell her why,” the lawsuit states. “Ms. M. said ‘no’ and demanded an explanation, but they would not tell her why they needed to take her seven-year-old son, and they took him anyway. The border agents did not tell Ms. M. where they were taking her son. When D.M. was taken away from his mother, he was screaming and crying and did not want to be taken away from his mother. That was the last time Ms. M. saw her son.”
In an interview with her lawyer, Mario Williams, and the company Libre by Nexus, which furnished her bail bond, Mejia-Mejia described the pain of losing her child, saying she filed the lawsuit for a simple purpose: to be reunited with him.
“It’s horrible to have your child taken away from you, and it’s not just me. There are many other mothers who are crying,” she said. “What I want is to be back with my son.”
She has not been able to contact her son since she was released from custody last week; government officials have declined to tell her where he is, her legal team said.
The lawsuit comes as new information about the child-parent separations that have resulted from the Trump administration’s new zero-tolerance practice has galvanized an already emotional national debate over immigration policy. At least 2,300 children, some as young as 4 years old, have been taken from their parents since early May as a result of the decision to criminally prosecute adults who cross the border illegally. The new policy has appeased immigration hard-liners who see the policy as a sign of robust law enforcement but has upset a large number of others across the political spectrum who see in it a humanitarian crisis.
Mejia-Mejia’s lawsuit follows one filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Congolese woman who was separated from her 7-year-old daughter for four months. That lawsuit seeks to halt the practice of separations. A judge in that case ruled in a preliminary hearing that the separation of the mother and child “shocks the conscience,”and said the separations may violate the Constitution’s due-process clause. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said Tuesday that the state, which he said houses in shelters at least 70 children separated from their families, would also sue the Trump administration over the practice.
The lawsuit was first reported by the DailyMail.com’s David Martosko, an editor who was at one time close enough to the Trump administration that he was considered for the position of White House press secretary last summer.
Mejia-Mejia was detained at the federal Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, where an officer told her that her son was in Phoenix but did not give her any other information, according to the lawsuit. She said she was not given any paperwork about her child to indicate anything about his status.
And she told The Washington Post she still does not know his whereabouts. Her legal team thinks her son is in a detention facility run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
She said she and her son have been able to speak once, by phone, though her son was crying and repeatedly saying “Mama!” as if he were in distress, the lawsuit states, saying that every day the boy is separated from his mother, he suffers emotional and psychological harm.
Mejia-Mejia was released from custody June 15, and has been staying with a friend in Austin as she awaits the next court hearing on her asylum petition. She has not received an answer from the government about why she has not been reunited with her child in the meantime, her legal team said. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday.
Libre by Nexus is being investigated by the attorneys general of Virginia, New York and Washington state after fraud complaints emerged about some the organization’s practices. Its CEO, Mike Donovan, said the company was providing legal assistance to Mejia-Mejia for both the civil case and her asylum petition as part of pro bono work it does for indigent clients.
The lawsuit names a raft of federal agencies and agency heads that deal with immigration, including the Department of Homeland Security, and sub-agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of Health and Human Services. It says that the plaintiffs violated Mejia-Mejia’s rights under a United Nations treaties and conventions, as well as the U.S. Constitution.
Both agencies declined to comment on the case, or provide information about the family’s separation and detention, citing the pending litigation.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has suggested that people who seek asylum in the United States should cross at official ports of entry along the border to avoid being criminally prosecuted. Mejia-Mejia has not been indicted criminally for illegally crossing the border, her legal team said.
“How on Earth is a person like Beata who traveled from Guatemala supposed to know where to go to enter an official port of entry?” Donovan asked. “She was coming to the U.S. and she was coming to submit for asylum. So she found the border and she crossed it where she crossed it.”
The lawsuit comes as political pressure grows because of the practice, as some Republican lawmakers have crossed party lines to call for its cessation.
State governors from both parties who have sent National Guard troops to the border, or promised to do so, reversed course amid intense opposition.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) on Monday scrapped plans to send National Guard assets to the border, while Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said Tuesday that they would recall the National Guard members already sent there.
Mark Berman and Deanna Paul contributed to this report.