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Immigrants mothers sue U.S. government over treatment at detention centers

FILE - In this July 7, 2015 file photo, immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who entered the country illegally board a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio. Justice Department lawyers are asking a federal judge to reconsider her July ruling ordering the release of children and mothers detained after they entered the U.S. illegally across the Mexican border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

FILE - In this July 7, 2015 file photo, immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who entered the country illegally board a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio. Justice Department lawyers are asking a federal judge to reconsider her July ruling ordering the release of children and mothers detained after they entered the U.S. illegally across the Mexican border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Five immigrant mothers held in facilities with their children are seeking millions of dollars in damages from the U.S. government for what they contend is psychological and physical harm as a result of being detained, according to court papers filed Monday.

Andrew Free, a Nashville immigration lawyer representing the women, filed tort claims against the Department of Homeland Security, alleging the detained women and their children received inadequate medical care, suffered psychological trauma and in some cases were wrongfully imprisoned.

The tort claims, a precursor to a federal lawsuit, also target U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE oversees two family detention centers in South Texas and another in Pennsylvania that currently hold about 1,400 people.

The filing comes just days after the government fought a federal judge's ruling calling for the immediate release of children and their mothers from detention, saying it intends to turn the facilities into short-term processing centers and that limiting family detention could spark another surge in immigrants from Central America.

Tens of thousands of immigrant families, mostly from Central America, crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. last summer. Many have petitioned for asylum after fleeing gang and domestic violence back home.

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ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen refused to comment on the pending litigation as a matter of policy. But she said the agency ensures that the centers operate in an "open environment" and are "an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries." The facilities provide access to play areas, educational services, medical care and legal help, she said. ICE officials have also said that it was necessary to detain families to ensure they didn't vanish.

But Free said that the reality of family detention is far different and that the government has "fallen below the standard of care that they owe to these detainees," as well as violated their rights as asylum seekers by using detention as a deterrent.

"We expect this will be the first in a large set of filings on the mistreatment of these women and children on behalf of the government," Free said.

Claimants in the 60-page filing, all from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, include a woman who said she received poor care for an injured ear because she could not speak to the medical staff in her indigenous language. Another said her children were among 250 kids given an erroneously high dose of a hepatitis A vaccine, despite their having proof of previous vaccination. A mother and daughter fleeing gang violence and held for more than six months were both diagnosed by a psychologist with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression exacerbated by their long detention.

A Honduran mother reported that her 8-year-old daughter attempted to breast-feed again, and another woman and her son said they had languished in detention for 28 days after having passed their credible fear interview, the first legal hurdle for asylum. When the same woman sought treatment for her broken fingers and wrist, she was allegedly told to "drink more water" by medical staff and her son was rushed to the hospital after "a virus apparently had gone untreated for a dangerously long time," according to the court papers.

"By bearing witness and helping these women assert these claims, we are undermining the government's narrative that this is a kindler gentler, detention policy," Free said.

More than 170 House Democrats have asked that Homeland Security end family detention. Immigrant rights organizations have filed complaints asking for investigations into the facilities, which include similar allegations of inadequate medical care and detention exacerbating or causing psychological trauma.

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