Chicago family files federal lawsuit following separation at border

Nearly five years after being separated at the U.S. border along Texas, a Chicago father and son have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to hold the government accountable for what happened to them.

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Selvin Argueta and his son, Selvin Najera, are pictured at their home in Chicago. Nearly five years ago, they were separated at the U.S. border in Texas as they sought asylum. The family has filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages for their experience.

Selvin Argueta and his son, Selvin Najera, are pictured at their home in Chicago. Nearly five years ago, they were separated at the U.S. border in Texas as they sought asylum. The family has filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages for their experience.

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Nearly five years after Selvin Argueta and his then-teenage son began a journey to leave their native Guatemala to seek asylum, there’s still a part of him that feels like he hasn’t recovered from it.

Hours after turning themselves over to U.S. immigration agents, he and his eldest son, Selvin Najera, who was a minor in May 2018, were separated without much explanation. It would be more than a year and half before the father and son would see each other again.

“There’s still a wound in your heart,” Argueta said in Spanish this week. “We don’t want it to happen to anyone else because it was a very difficult moment and no one — as a human — deserves it.”

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Argueta and his son, who is now 21 years old, said they don’t want any other family to go through what they experienced. It’s one of the reasons why they filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court against the government to seek monetary damages for their separation and detention. The lawsuit alleges claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, abuse of process and harboring a minor.

Their separation was prompted by a so called zero-tolerance policy instituted by former President Donald Trump’s administration that sought to prosecute any adult crossing the border for illegal entry. If the adult had a child with them, they were separated and taken into custody by Health and Human Services, the Associated Press previously reported.

Argueta, who has since been reunited with his other six children and wife, and his son are now living in Chicago as their asylum case snakes through immigration court. Argueta and his son are represented in the recently filed lawsuit by the University of Chicago Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic.

The lawsuit is part of a wave of litigation happening across the country from parents who were separated from their children during that time period, said Jace Lee, one of the student attorneys representing the family. The family is also represented by attorney Nicole Hallett, director of the law clinic.

Lee said families have tried unsuccessfully to settle their claims with the government, which is why some like Argueta are moving forward with the federal lawsuits.

Allison O’Connor, another student attorney representing the Argueta family, said they expect the government will try to have the lawsuit dismissed, but they see it as a way to hold government entities accountable.

“It was such a traumatic experience,” O’Connor said. “It was also a really dehumanizing experience. They often talk about how shocked they felt that they were treated like criminals.”

Thousands of minors were separated from their parents at the border during that time period. A federal judge in California later in 2018 ordered the government to reunite separated families, the Associated Press reported. In 2021, the U.S. Justice Department rescinded the memo that had been issued by Trump’s administration that created the policy.

In Chicago, the fallout of the policy led to at least one federal lawsuit stemming from criticism of how the children who were separated at the border from their parents were treated in shelters run at the time by Heartland Alliance.

Selvin Argueta and his son, Selvin Najera, left their native Guatemala in April 2018 and arrived to the U.S. by mid May 2018, they said. The father and son had come to seek asylum following threats from gangs, according to court records.

After turning themselves over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to seek asylum, the pair was separated and detained separately within hours, according to the complaint filed in federal court.

Selvin Najera was about 16 years old when he was separated from his father. It was the first time he wasn’t with his family, he said.

While he was held in custody, Najera remembers how immigration officers laughed at him and taunted him for crying when he asked for help. Other times, he remembers officers would kick him in the legs or feet.

“The immigration officials laughed and said my dad wasn’t going to go with me,” Najera said.

The complaint also claims that the government was slow to provide Najera medical care while in their custody when he told them about having abdominal and testicular pain. He still experiences similar physical problems, according to the lawsuit.

The teen spent months in custody before he was released to an uncle in Georgia. Najera said he couldn’t concentrate on his studies because of everything that happened.

By then, Argueta had been deported to Guatemala and Najera was in the United States alone.

Argueta said he was given paperwork that wasn’t translated and told it was so he could know where his son was located. But instead he was deported without seeing his son.

He later was allowed to return after a federal judge ruled his deportation was unlawful, according to his attorneys and the complaint. In January 2020, he was reunited with his son in Chicago.

Argueta said it was a beautiful moment that was also filled with sadness. It’s been hard for the father and son to forget about the separation.

“At the same time that I feel well and happy that we are together, it’s hard to forget what happened to you,” Najera said. “It’s difficult things that a person lived through.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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