The last time Angelica Rebeca Gonzalez-Garcia saw her daughter was in an immigration detention center in Arizona, where the two were roused from bed at 5 a.m.
She was ordered to bathe the girl, who was then 7, and dress her in an oversized shirt, a blue jacket, and blue pants. Her daughter was then placed in line with other children to be taken away.
“I hugged my daughter and told her that she didn’t have to cry,” said Gonzalez-Garcia, who is from Guatemala and staying with friends in Framingham while awaiting an asylum hearing. “She asked me, ‘Mom, am I going to be able to see you again?’ and I said, yes.”
That was 48 days ago. Gonzalez-Garcia and her daughter haven’t seen each other since and have only spoken five times.
On Wednesday, she sued the federal government, demanding the immediate release of her child who was taken as part of the Trump administration’s policy of “zero-tolerance” for people who enter the country illegally. Under the policy, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents. And though it has been reversed, the government has struggled to reunite families, and several parents have taken legal action.
In the lawsuit filed in US District Court, Gonzalez-Garcia argued that the government “has offered no legitimate basis for this continued detention” of her child, who turned 8 without her mother.
The lawsuit names several government agencies, each charged with immigration enforcement or caring for unaccompanied minors, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which said in a statement that it does not comment on pending litigation nor does it identify or comment on specific cases involving unaccompanied minors.
“Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of unaccompanied alien children,” the statement said.
The lawsuit comes a day after a federal judge in California issued a preliminary injunction calling for all children affected by the “zero-tolerance” policy to be reunited with their parents within 30 days.
And while immigration attorneys and civil rights activists praise the decision, they argue that relief for these families cannot wait because every minute that children remain separated from their parents causes irrevocable harm.
“If you are a parent like I am, you know that when your child is suffering, every minute can feel like an eternity,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which filed the suit on behalf of Gonzalez-Garcia along with law firms Demissie & Church and Nixon Peabody.
Other organizations are also trying to reunite families separated at the US-Mexican border.
The Brazilian Worker Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice said they are trying to reunite a mother and her 9-year-old son, whose whereabouts were unknown to her until Wednesday. They have been separated for a month.
Natalícia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Worker Center, said her organization has received several calls from parents in Massachusetts who have been separated from their children.
“People are desperate for help,” she said.
Gonzalez-Garcia, 31, said through tears during a news conference that she’s desperate to have her daughter returned to her.
“She’s a little girl. She hasn’t done anything wrong. Why can’t they return her to me? Why can’t I go see her?” she said. “I’m pleading.”
Gonzalez-Garcia said she and her daughter crossed the border in Arizona seeking asylum on or about May 9, citing severe violence and discrimination in Guatemala. They were taken into custody and placed in a cell with about 40 other women and children.
The next day, she was told by immigration authorities that “they were going to take my daughter a long way away from me,” she said. On May 11, she and her daughter were separated.
Gonzalez-Garcia was transferred to Colorado, where she was released on June 19 after posting $1,500 bond and granted an asylum hearing by an immigration judge. Her daughter, however, remains in government custody in Texas, where she contracted conjunctivitis and was hit in the face by another child, according to the lawsuit.
Susan Church, a lawyer representing Gonzalez-Garcia and her daughter, said “evil bureaucratic reasons” are keeping her clients apart.
“The government is refusing to reunite Angelica with her [daughter] because of a fingerprint delay,” Church said. “Basically, they are treating this mother as if her daughter had never met her, as if she were a stranger to her own daughter.”
The lawsuit says the government has told Gonzalez-Garcia that everyone in the Framingham household with whom she is staying must be fingerprinted at a facility in Newark, and that the earliest this can be done is July 16.
The fingerprints and a 36-page “screening form to justify her qualification as a ‘sponsor’ of her own daughter” then must be processed, an undertaking that could take weeks, the suit says.
“Applying these burdensome requirements . . . unreasonably extends family separations that never should have occurred to begin with,” it said.