PHOENIX — The Honduran mother said she felt repeatedly pressured to sign documents she wasn’t given time to read, so she lashed out at an immigration officer, telling him it shouldn’t be this hard to get her son back.
The officer put his hands in a motion imitating choking someone and told her that’s what he’d do to her if she were his wife, the woman said in an interview Thursday. She spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity over fears about her safety.
“I felt so horrible because of so many things they told us, that they were gonna deport us, that our kids were gonna stay here,” she said of her experience after being separated from her son at the border this spring.
A complaint filed against the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday alleges many parents were coerced into signing paperwork they didn’t understand and that they were verbally and emotionally abused while detained and away from their children.
In some of the cases, parents gave away rights to be reunited with their children when the non-English speaking mothers and fathers signed documents in English they could not read, according to the complaint provided to the AP before it was filed with the Department of Homeland Security.
In other examples, parents who had been reunited were threatened with another separation if they didn’t agree to be deported with their children, the complaint said.
The complaint was filed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council, who say attorneys spoke with 76 parents who said they were asked to sign forms affecting their rights to reunify with their children.
All of them said they weren’t allowed to ask what would happen if they signed the form.
The U.S. government separated more than 2,500 children from their parents this year as the Trump administration adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy requiring anyone who crossed the border illegally to be prosecuted. That resulted in parents who had to go to federal court to face criminal misdemeanor charges of illegal entry to be separated from their children, often for months.
The policy ignited a worldwide furor and Trump eventually reversed course.
A federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against the government gave authorities until July 26 to reunite all families, although over 300 parents who were deported to their home countries have yet to be reunited with their children.
The complaint to the Department of Homeland Security’s Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Inspector General claims several mothers said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers told them that if they didn’t sign the form, they would never see their children again.
The Honduran mother left her homeland with her 12-year-old son in April to escape gangs that threatened their lives when she reported them to police over their demands that she pay them a cut of her clothing business. She said authorities also repeatedly told her son that his mother was going to be deported and he would be adopted by someone in the U.S. and that they’d cut off his fingers if he lied when being interviewed by authorities, she said.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman declined comment Thursday on the complaint, saying that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation, although the complaint is not a lawsuit.
But a top agency official, Matthew Albence, denied similar allegations during a July 31 Senate committee meeting.
“A great many of these individuals do not wish to have their child returned home with them. The reason most of them have come in the first place is to get their children to the United States,” Albence said at the time.
The complaint claimed migrant parents separated from their children were subjected to verbal and physical abuse, including being deprived of food and water and being put into solitary confinement.
In another example, a Guatemalan mother who was separated from her 5-year-old son said an officer at the Port Isabel, Texas, detention center told her to sign a document to be returned to her home country so that she could get her son back.
The officer didn’t explain what she was signing and the woman did so out of desperation, according to the complaint. The woman, like many others, also reported being threatened with solitary confinement because she was crying so much over being separated from her son.
The woman, referred to only as “A.E.” in the complaint, was eventually reunited with her son and is currently detained with him in Dilley, Texas.
Stories of parents who said they were coerced into signing off on their deportations and further separations have circulated for months.
Rolando Antonio Bueso Castillo, the father of a 1-year-old boy, said he was told he’d be reunited with his son if he signed off on his deportation.
But it would be five months before the boy, Johan, would be reunited with his parents in Honduras. That happened only after an immigration judge granted the boy a voluntary departure order, which allowed the government to fly him home.