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Case Study

At the outset of the family separation crisis in 2018, Stroock lawyers from around the country traveled to the U.S.- Mexico border for emergency work on behalf of migrant families, while others contributed remotely from all four offices and their surrounding areas.

Stroock followed up this work by helping separated migrant families fight for their rights while seeking compensation from the government, in a series of matters that concluded last month.  

Partnering with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Justice in Motion, Heartland Alliance, the ACLU and the National Immigration Justice Center, our lawyers have brought a number of claims related to family separations under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows certain types of lawsuits against the government despite its sovereign immunity protection.

The lawsuits generally state that the government violated the migrant families’ constitutional rights, including the right to family integrity, and that the government caused harm to those in custody. We have advised 16 families regarding these types of matters, representing a firmwide effort organized by the Public Service Project.

“The stories of what these families experience are simply egregious,” said Kevin Curnin, who leads the Public Service Project. “They illustrate just how dangerous and destructive these policies are.”

A Family Torn Apart

On May 7, 2018, a 7-year-old named Ashly arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border with her father. They were stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which took them into custody and separated father and child within a few hours. They would not see each other again for 165 days, when the Office of Refugee Settlement finally agreed to return Ashly to Guatemala in mid-October 2018.

While her father was sent to jail and subsequently deported, Ashly was sent to ORR facilities where the 7-year-old had no contact with her family for more than a month and a half, until June 25, when she was allowed a phone call with her mother.

ORR records documented Ashly’s deterioration while in custody. 

Medical records from just the first several weeks of her detention showed that Ashly contracted the flu two weeks after arrival, returned to urgent care twice again within two weeks with rashes, strep, acute respiratory infection, and scarlet fever, was diagnosed with impetigo a week later, was placed in isolation for several days based on health problems, and had head lice starting shortly after her arrival and continuing at least more than three months following her departure from that facility.  

ORR records also include nearly 60 incidents where Ashly had “explosions of emotions” and aggression, stated that “she wanted to die,” and repeatedly tried to escape by climbing fences and running toward moving cars. Among the incidents of abuse by staff, one standout was a camera recording of a staff member who grabbed Ashly from behind by her arms and later dragged her by the leg into the hallway. Ashly told her mother that she had learned how to defend herself and that she had bit an officer who had come down over her body to get him off her.

Her mother reports that Ashly remains traumatized after returning to Guatemala. Besides experiencing rage and aggression, fear of being alone and taken from her family, Ashly has threatened to take her own life and the life of her mother.

“Ashly’s parents, like others filing FTCA claims after their children were torn from them, have little expectation of getting remediation, but they are acting in the hope that it will end these policies and the suffering of other children,” said Quyen Truong, who represented the family.

Immigration Work

For Kevin Curnin, the head of the PSP, the FTCA work represents a logical extension of the firm’s efforts at the outset of the family separation crisis.

In May 2018, Stroock lawyers traveled to the border city of El Paso to assist with matters on the ground, and a team of several Stroock lawyers traveled to the Albany County Jail to assist hundreds of immigrants who had become inmates, preparing them for credible fear interviews, a crucial step in the asylum-seeking process.

Our firm also helped shape the broader legal arguments being made on behalf of immigrants seeking asylum.

In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions handed down a decision against asylum seekers in In the Matter of A-B. In A-B’s aftermath, a coalition of advocacy groups asked Stroock to analyze Third Circuit case law and provide guidance on limiting the decision’s effects.

“We had not previously been a firm that focused on immigration work, but we knew that now is the time,” Kevin said. “We continue to work to abolish these types of unconscionable policies and to address these wrongs.”

The Stroock team in the FTCA matters includes Ross Moskowitz, Timothy Gilman, Joy Baskin, John-Paul Ovadia, Brian Frontino, Kingsley Nwamah, Quyen Truong, Jake Loftus, Christine Ellice, Caroline Diaz, Ken Pasquale, Joanne Lau, Emily Kuznick, John Iaffaldano and David Steiber.

Stroock provides strategic transactional, regulatory and litigation advice to advance the business objectives of leading financial institutions, multinational corporations and entrepreneurial businesses in the U.S. and globally. With a rich history dating back 140 years, the firm has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C. For more, visit www.stroock.com.