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Family separation lawsuit offers chilling details as Trump administration says it will fulfill federal court order

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar says that the Trump administration is working to comply with a federal court order deadline to reunite immigrant families separated at the border. Meanwhile, 17 states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit over the family separation policy. Lisa Desjardins shares chilling first-hand accounts with Judy Woodruff.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As we reported earlier, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said today that the Trump administration is working to comply with a federal court order to reunite immigrant families who've been separated at the border.

    On a press briefing call today, Lisa Desjardins asked the secretary about the children who are still in the government's care, and can report on what we have learned.

    So, Lisa, you were on the call. What did you learn?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Well, I think there were two headlines here.

    One is that the Trump administration is now saying it will comply with this latest court order saying that children who have been separated must be reunited with parents within 30 days or 14 days if they're under 5.

    That 14-day deadline is next Tuesday. HHS says, in some cases, the way they will do that, however, is to send those children to parents who are in detention and detain them together.

    The other thing, Judy, that we learned is that, in some cases, it seems, HHS is not sure about whether a child was separated from a parent or came on their own. That's a real breakdown in the process. That's a problem for reuniting these families.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Lisa, separately from all that, there's a set of legal documents, legal filings from a number of states. They're suing the federal government. Tell us about what you see there.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right.

    This is an extraordinary trove of firsthand accounts from people who have experienced this policy. First, let's talk about that lawsuit. It's 17 states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit.

    What they want, a few things. They want a court to order that this policy is unconstitutional and it must stop permanently. They also want courts to order that asylum seekers be allowed to process and go through the border without being detained.

    Now, as that court case works out, the states filed 1,000 pages, nearly 1,000 pages of documentation of people who have experienced this process or have knowledge about it.

    Poring through those documents, Judy, is the firsthand accounts that we have been trying to get our hands on for so long. And just overall, we see many themes that are the same, many parents who were separated with little or no notice that they would be separated. Sometimes, they were taken away to a hearing, returned to find their child had been taken.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tell us a little bit about what you see there. What are these families saying?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    First, we learned a lot about what these families in this legal documentation says how the physical situation was for them.

    First of all, 15-by-15 size cells with 30 to 50 adults, sometimes children in them as well, with one toilet usually for those people to share. Usually, there's some privacy. However, it's still in the same room. And children and adults sharing that space. They're called iceboxes.

    Many, many people of these refer them as so cold that they had to huddle together on cement floors. We also have some very gripping and frankly difficult-to-read personal testimonies. I want to point to one of them.

    This is from a mother whose 14-month-old child was separated from her and from the father. They were reunited after 85 days. She wrote- "The child continued to cry when we got home and would hold on to my leg and would not let me go. When I took off his clothes, he was full of dirt and lice. It seemed like they had not bathed him the 85 days he was away from us."

    She went on to say that she had thought, her child being so young, he wouldn't have really significant effects from the separation. But when she was reunited with him, she's worried that now actually he is really feeling and has changed because of the separation.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Eighty-five days without bathing?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    This is her accusation, and that's the important part.

    We have asked all the government agencies involved to respond, and they said they aren't going to respond now to this ongoing litigation. The department — the homeland — HHS secretary told me on the phone, he said, hey, be careful. You know, we don't know if these are all HHS facilities.

    We did check in this case, and the facility that — location that this mother named does sync up with the place where there is an HHS shelter, has been an HHS shelter for children.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Lisa, amidst all this, troubling allegations of psychological and verbal abuse.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Throughout this, we see allegations of racial slurs, guards calling some of these immigrants stupid, and some very particularly troubling accusations, like this one from this mother.

    She wrote- "One of the officers asked me in Guatemala," her home country, "'Do they celebrate Mother's Day?' When I answered yes, he said, 'Then Happy Mother's day,' because the next Sunday was Mother's Day. I lowered my head," she wrote, "so that my daughter wouldn't see the tears forming in my eyes. That particular act of cruelty astonished me."

    And these are dozens of stories, all of them very difficult to read. We just pulled out a very few. It's important to say these are selected by the states. They are trying to make a case that this is a bad system.

    This is just 1 percent, we think, of the total people who have been affected by this. Many of these stories, we may never hear, because these are folks who have been deported. It's important to say these are cases that were selected by those who oppose the system, but they are very gripping.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

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