Hearing Reveals Migrant Kids’ Trauma
BRIDGEPORT, CT — Immigrant rights lawyers and a leading child psychiatrist from New Haven tried to convince a federal judge to reunite two traumatized migrant children in Connecticut with their parents who are in Texas.
Meanwhile, two New Haven activists helping to lead a protest outside the courthouse shared their own stories of trauma, fear and resilience as undocumented immigrants living in America.
That was the scene Wednesday at U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, where Judge Victor A. Bolden presided over a hearing in J.S.R. and V.F.B. v. Sessions, a case filed last week by Yale student lawyers and Connecticut Legal Services on behalf of two children being held in eastern Connecticut.
The lawyers failed to secure the immediate release and reunification of the two children with their parents in the face of the federal government’s promise to reunite all separated migrant families at two detention centers in Texas by July 26.
But they did manage to win a follow-up appointment with the judge next week, when they will continue to argue that the government should not wait until the end of the month to remedy alleged violations of two kids who have been rendered psychologically disabled by the trauma of being separated from their parents.
“In this country, when we are at our best ... the rule of law is an article of faith we all try to abide by,” Bolden, a former New Haven city corporation counsel who still lives in the Westville neighborhood, told the 60 people crowded into the court room towards the end of the hearing.
Lawyers with Connecticut Legal Services and the Yale Law School’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic filed the lawsuit on behalf of J.S.R., a 9-year-old boy from Honduras, and V.F.B., a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador.
Both children fled to the United States with their respective parents two months ago to escape violence in their home countries. After arriving in Texas, both children were detained by immigration officials, then sent to a Connecticut group home overseen by the Groton-based Noank Community Support Services, while their parents remained in two immigration detention centers thousands of miles away in Texas.
In court on Wednesday, Marisol Orihuela of the Yale Law School clinic argued that both J.S.R. and V.F.B. have suffered from the effects of chronic trauma and acute PTSD as a result of the government separating them from their parents.
“These two young people are suffering every day,” she told the judge.
The lawsuit alleges that the Trump administration’s recent policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border not only violates these two children’s constitutional rights to due process, but also violates protections afforded them as people with disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The only way to remedy these violations, Orihuela argued, is to reunite the children with their parents outside of the confines of a detention center.
“The relief we seek today,” she said, “is for [these children] to be reunited with their parents in liberty outside of custody immediately.” She said that, up until a court order earlier this week that allowed the children to communicate with their parents by iPhone, V.F.B. had gone nearly two months without seeing her mother’s face, and J.S.R. had gone nearly one month without seeing his father.
A federal judge in California recently ruled that the Trump administration must reunite over 2,000 separated migrant families by July 26. Orihuela said Bolden should not wait until nearly the end of the month to bring J.S.R. and V.F.B. back together with their parents. The reason, she said, is because their case is primarily about the disability rights of two individuals, while the California case is a class action suit about due process and federal laws that protect asylum seekers.
“Even if you want to let the Ms. L order run its course,” she said, referencing the California case name, “[this court] can and should grant the relief we seek under the Rehabilitation Act.”
Trauma Before, During, And After Separation
The plaintiffs’ sole witness on Wednesday afternoon was Dr. Andres Martin, a psychiatry professor at the Yale Child Study Center and the medical director of the Children’s Psychiatric Inpatient Service at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital.
Martin took the stand in the air-conditioned, wood-paneled court room just after 12:30 p.m. He didn’t leave the stand until just before 3 p.m.
Connecticut Legal Services attorney Joanne Lewis sought through her questions to have Martin, a medical expert on child psychiatry, lay out in comprehensive detail the medical nature and consequences of childhood trauma and PTSD, as well as the specific instances of these disorders in J.S.R. and V.F.B.
His testimony went on twice as long as it otherwise might have because the entire proceeding was translated into Spanish for the benefit of J.S.R.’s father and V.F.B.’s mother, who were video-conferenced into the courtroom from their current holding place at the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall, Tex. J.S.R. and V.F.B. did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.
The videoconference program occasionally froze, and the two court-certified translators often had to ask the doctor, lawyers and judge to repeat themselves. Bolden, ever calm and good-natured, followed through on his commitment to keep the court room accessible to the remote, Spanish-speaking parents.
“I’m going to be as patient as possible to make sure the parents can participate,” he said.
Under the guidance of Lewis’s questions, Martin laid out a clear and comprehensive case for the two children’s suffering from trauma and PTSD. He repeated his recommended solution for their mental illnesses several times throughout the hearing.
“My recommendation is for the immediate reunification of these children with their parents in a place where they can have support, freedom, and all the trappings of a normal life.”
Martin explained that trauma is the result of any real or perceived threat of death to oneself or one’s loved ones. PTSD, he said, is a medical syndrome that results from that trauma, and comes with a flattening of one’s affect, uncontrollable replaying of that trauma while awake and asleep, and a hyper-alertness to one’s surroundings.
Trauma and PTSD can result in everything from difficulties with sleep and depression to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Martin, a native Spanish speaker, said he interviewed these two children with three of his bilingual colleagues July 1at the children’s facility where they’re being held. There, he learned that J.S.R. and V.F.B. suffered from trauma and PTSD even before leaving for the United States.
He described J.S.R. as “a boy who relayed a long, long story of traumatic events in his life.” The 9-year-old had seen one of his grandparents dead body tossed in a river and with her neck torn open. He had also seen the dead body of a neighbor dumped in his backyard.
Martin said J.S.R. was particularly terrified by gang threats made against his father back in Honduras. He described a strong and loving bond between J.S.R. and his father, whom the child looks to as a protector and role model.
Martin described a similar story for V.F.B. She and her mother fled El Salvador after a gang murdered her stepfather. She too has a close and loving relationship with her mother.
Lewis asked Martin if the migration journeys themselves were traumatic for either J.S.R. and V.F.B.
“It was long and arduous,” Martin said about J.S.R.’s journey with his father from Honduras to Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. “It was hot. There was hunger. But it wasn’t traumatic by itself.” He said the same about V.F.B.’s trek north from El Salvador with her mother.
What was traumatic, he said, was what happened in America.
In Texas, immigration officials separated J.S.R. and his father into two different hieleras, or ice boxes.
“He was in a room with other children,” Martin said. “All were crying and were cold.” When his father was allowed in, he brought J.S.R. a blanket, but his father’s fingers were so cold he couldn’t unfurl the blanket to cover his son.
Soon thereafter, J.S.R. was separated from his father. The immigration officials told him that his father had gone off to sign some paperwork. Before he knew it, J.S.R. was sent on a multi-day journey to Connecticut, while his father remained in Texas.
“He now has a full blown, acute PTSD symptomology,” Martin said, “that comes on top of chronic traumatic background.”
V.F.G. didn’t fare any better in America, he said. When she and her mother were detained by federal immigration officials in mid-May, she was taken to a bathroom, given toiletries, and told she could take a shower with the understanding that her mother would be there when she got out. But when she left the bathroom, her mother was gone. She was sent to Connecticut. Her mother remained in Texas.
When Martin and his colleagues applied the Childhood PTSD Symptom Scale (CPSS) test to J.S.R. during their interview at Noank on July 1, the 9-year-old scored a 38 out of a maximum score of 51. Martin said a score of 15 is the threshold for a child with PTSD. V.F.G., he said, scored a 21.
Lewis asked Martin again and again what his recommendation was a child psychiatry expert. Again and again, he said the best thing for both children was their immediate reunification with their parents in a safe and free environment. Barring that, he said, the children need some kind of definite timeline as to when they will be with their parents again.
“Every day that goes by adds to the gravity of the situation,” he said. “It’s already been too long.”
Reuniting Families … In Detention Centers
After Lewis finished her questioning, Michelle McConaghy, an attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Haven who led the defense for the federal government on Wednesday, took her turn quizzing Martin.
“If that’s not legally possible,” McConaghy asked about reuniting the two families outside of federal custody, “is it your option that reunification is still the most effective treatment?”
Martin said it depends on what the alternative is.
McConaghy asked about the medical efficacy of reuniting the children with their parents while still under federal custody. She asked about the medical efficacy of keeping the children free, but pairing them instead with an adult sponsor.
“Feasible,” Martin said about both options, “but far from ideal.”
In her closing argument to Judge Bolton, McConaghy argued that the District of Connecticut federal court does not have the jurisdiction to order the release of J.S.R. and V.F.B.’s parents, who are both in Texas.
“The relief the plaintiff seeks beyond reunification … is not possible,” she said.
Furthermore, she said, just moments before Wednesday’s court hearing in Bridgeport began, the Trump administration told the U.S. Attorney’s Office about a new plan to reunite over 2,000 separated migrant families by July 26, per the court order in the California Ms. L case.
She said the administration now plans to transfer all detained migrant parents to two immigration detention centers in Texas, the Karnes County Residential Center and the South Texas Detention Facility, and then have the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) transport all separated children to those two centers to be reunited with their parents.
McConaghy said the Trump administration will be moving separated parents and children back to the Texas detention centers in waves, and that her office in New Haven would work hard to ensure that J.S.R. and V.F.B. are part of an early wave of children returned to their parents in the detention facilities.
“The government asks that we be given the time that the court in Ms. L allowed,” she said.
Orihuela disagreed with McCongahy’s proposal to return J.S.R. and V.F.B. to a detention center in Texas only for the government to likely decide that they should be released soon thereafter because of their medical conditions and because of their status as children.
“It frankly doesn’t make sense,” she said.
The Flores settlement agreement prohibits the federal government from keeping children in immigration detention centers for longer than 20 days.
Orihuela said she also doubted the legality of returning children to an immigration detention center after they had been released.
She said V.F.B. already has an immigration court in Connecticut scheduled for early August, and that the federal government should release her mother so that the two can be together for the hearing on her immigration status. She also said that J.S.R.’s father is eligible for a reasonable fear interview, and, if he passes, he may be put on parole for the pendency of his withholding proceeding.
“We want relief today,” she said.
But, she said, if the court couldn’t grant relief for both the children and the parents today, then the plaintiffs would be willing to come back before the judge next week, as opposed to waiting until after the July 26 federal deadline passes to petition for relief again.
“These are challenging issues,” Bolden said. He said the rule of law ensures that everyone in America, regardless of their background, deserves to be treated fairly and deserves to expect justice.
“Whatever the court does,” he said, “we’re trying to engage in this exercise to make sure that the rule of law is upheld.”
Bolden decided not to issue a final ruling on Wednesday. He ordered both parties to return to the Bridgeport court house next Wednesday, July 18 for a status update. He did not rule on whether or not he will order the government to send the parents to Connecticut for next week’s hearing, nor did he rule on Orihuela’s request that the children be granted daily video communication privileges with their respective parents.
Trauma Shared Outside The Courtroom
An hour before the hearing began, around 100 protesters gathered in the plaza in front of Bridgeport’s federal court house to demonstrate their support for the two migrant children at the center of the lawsuit and their opposition to the Trump administration’s policies towards undocumented immigrants.
A contingent of New Haveners traveled down to Bridgeport for the protest with Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) organizer Vanesa Suarez.
Two of those New Haveners took the mic at the protest to share their own stories of trauma coming to and living in this country as undocumented immigrants.
Larissa Martinez, a 21-year-old summer intern at the Connecticut Bail Fund and rising junior at Yale University, said Wednesday was the eight-year anniversary of her arrival in the United States.
She said she fled Mexico City with her mother and sister because of her violent father, who is a politician in Mexico. She said they were fortunate enough to be able to cross the border by plane, and arrived in McKinney, Texas in 2010. She then moved to New Haven six years later to attend Yale University.
Martinez said that every time gets a call from her mother, she fears that the call will be about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has detained or deported her 13-year-old sister.
“I want to make it clear to everyone that these are fears that members of our community have,” she said. “This is not just happening at the border. This is a looming threat that people like me have to live with every day of our lives. This doesn’t go away.”
“All of my dreams,” she continued, “everything is threatened by the fear of deportation. By the fear of having ICE knocking at my door, knocking at my family’s door.”
Carlos Jaramillo, a 15-year-old rising junior at Wilbur Cross High School, also shared the anxiety he feels at being undocumented, as well as the trauma of being separated from his 18-year-old sister.
“Kids don’t really know what being undocumented means,” he said. “Kids my age don’t fully understand the idea behind borders, walls, migration, unless they experienced it like I did.”
Jaramillo and his father and sister came to the United States from Ecuador in 2016. Like Martinez, they were able to fly across the border.
But earlier this year, Jaramillo’s sister was involved in a car accident. He said she was so afraid of showing up to court and being detained by ICE that she returned to Ecuador and left her father and brother in New Haven.
“My sister and I were separated because of this unjust system,” he said.
He and Suarez then helped lead the group in one of the morning’s many protest chants.
“No borders!” they shouted. “No nations! Stop deportations!”