PHOENIX — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Thursday seeking potentially millions of dollars in damages on behalf of thousands of immigrant families who were separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The ACLU and other attorneys filed a lawsuit in Tucson against past and present Trump administration officials, alleging the government violated immigrants’ rights and deeply traumatized an estimated 4,000 children who were taken from their parents after crossing the border illegally. Most of the families were from Central America and many were asylum-seekers.

Family separations began on a large scale in early 2018 and were widely decried as inhumane. President Donald Trump ended the policy in June 2018 by executive order, and a federal judge in San Diego ordered the reunification of 2,700 children, although advocates say many more were separated.

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Immigration Separating Families
FILE - In this June 20, 2018 photo, immigrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children a former Job Corps site that now houses them in Homestead, Fla. Migrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border last year suffered post-traumatic stress and other serious mental health problems, according to a government watchdog report obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday. The chaotic reunification process only added to their trauma. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
AP

The government carried out family separations without a reunification plan in place. Thousands of parents weren’t told where their children would be placed, and the federal agency that housed the kids after they were taken didn’t always know that they had traveled with a parent. Chaos ensued when parents desperate to find their children couldn’t track them down. In some cases, parents were deported without their children.

In this latest suit, the ACLU wants class action status, meaning if it wins, thousands of families who are not plaintiffs can also be compensated. Attorneys didn’t list a dollar amount requested, but have also filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security that seek $3 million per family. Those complaints could be eventually tied into this lawsuit.

“We think that the family separations was so extreme and so unprecedented that if ever there was a case warranting damages, it’s this one,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said. Gelernt said families who were separated deserve to be compensated for the trauma they suffered and that he hoped the money, if granted, would be used to get mental health assistance and so that families could “put their lives back together.”

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Child welfare experts have said family separation leads to lifelong trauma, especially in young children.

In one case, a Guatemalan woman and her two sons, then ages 7 and 8, were separated after crossing from Mexico into Arizona in May 2018. The woman, identified in the lawsuit only as “Ana,” didn’t know where they were for three weeks, despite pleas for information.

She eventually learned they had been flown to Miami. Ana was released in early July and reunified with her kids a week later. The family, which fled gang violence and religious persecution in Guatemala, was granted asylum and lives in Florida. But the boys still struggle with trauma, the lawsuit alleges. The youngest boy can’t sleep or bathe alone, and his brother acts out in anger, according to the lawsuit.