When Ludin and her two children reached the Texas border in May 2018, she had no idea what fate awaited her. She knew only that her journey to the United States was a matter of life and death. In Guatemala, the family’s safety was under threat from a criminal gang.
But once in the United States, the family lived the nightmare of being separated, one of thousands of migrant families arbitrarily abused under the Trump administration’s policy of maximum cruelty to immigrants, no matter their circumstances.
“First, they took my boy away and I thought, ‘Well, they’re taking him to stay with the men,’ ” Ludin recalled in an interview in Spanish. She did not want to give her last name for fear it would compromise her and her family’s safety. “But then they said to me that my daughter was going to stay and I would go. And I remember my first thought was, ‘No! What?!’ Next thing I know, my daughter was crying and hugging me, while I was telling her, ‘I love you, I will always love you.’ She was crying hysterically. Then an officer came and separated us. I begged him to let me say goodbye to my son and he said to me, ‘No, forget about them forever.’ ”
Both children — out of a total of 5,500 children who have been separated by the government since the summer of 2017 — ended up in Michigan, the then-9-year-old daughter with a foster family, the son, then 17, at a shelter for minors. After being separated for about five weeks, they arrived in the Boston area, first to be reunited with their dad, Elmer. Ludin joined them a few days later in a moving encounter at Logan airport that was captured by several media outlets.
Elmer and Ludin’s family are among the lucky ones who ultimately were reunited, unlike the families of more than 600 children who have not yet been reunited with their parents. Elmer and Ludin’s family represent, in a pending lawsuit, a basic question for the Biden administration as it begins to clean up the many messes left behind by Donald Trump. What is owed, if anything, to families who legitimately arrived at the border seeking asylum, threw themselves at the mercy of the United States, and then were subjected to a bureaucratic form of child abuse?
Ludin and her children are party to an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed in Boston two years ago against the federal government seeking monetary damages, estimated in a new filing at around $250,000 per individual class member, for the long-term harm inflicted on families who were separated. (A similar case out of Arizona was filed in 2019 seeking damages.) The suit also asks for a fund to be established for mental health care and services, as well as ongoing monitoring of the children’s well-being.
The government’s awarding of monetary damages to foreigners affected by domestic immigration policies lacks historical precedent. “This is more barbaric and egregious than a lot of things we’ve seen,” said Joe Cacace, an attorney with Todd & Weld representing Ludin’s family and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We think it’s the type of facts that may lead to an upending of precedents,” said Nathan Warecki, a lawyer with Nixon Peabody also involved in the case.
Indeed, the government owes a debt to these families. The traumatic legacy of family separation lives on, even for families who have been reunited. Their psychological scars may be hidden, but they still need to be addressed.
“We are poor, we don’t have any means to pay for professional therapy for them,” Elmer said. Less than a year ago, Ludin’s son had a nightmare in which he relived everything the family went through. It was so intense, Ludin said, that when he woke, he realized he had been crying so hard in his sleep that his ears were wet from his tears. The girl suffered insomnia; when the family remembers the events of that summer, they all often end up crying.
In order to justify family separations at the border, Trump administration officials resorted to — what else? — blaming and criminalizing the parents. “The agents would tell us this was our fault, that we were bad mothers for bringing our kids, that we didn’t love them,” said Ludin. “And I started to believe them. I would think, ‘Why did I come here to give my kids away?’ I’m fleeing from a dangerous place to protect them, and how is it that I put them in a worse situation?”
Migrants fleeing institutional violence have a basic legal right to seek asylum in the United States. But gaslighting was a classic Trump tactic: Revictimizing the victims became the norm among immigration officials in charge of deploying his administration’s indefensible policies at the border.
Biden, through an executive order establishing a task force to reunite families who remain apart, has acknowledged the grave culpability of the federal government in its separation policy. Cacace sent a letter to the new administration last week asking to start negotiations to settle the class-action case.
How much money does the United States owe each family? That’s for the experts to figure out. But it is a responsibility the Biden administration has inherited from Trump — to help make families whole again by awarding monetary damages to each of them.