Federal Court Authorizes Depositions of Former Trump Cabinet Officials in Lawsuit by Immigrant Families Victimized by Family Separation Policy

Immigration Court in San Francisco

Special to the Vanguard

San Francisco, CA – On Monday, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California granted the request of three Bay Area families forcibly separated at the border to depose former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, in the families’ lawsuit seeking to hold the government to account for the Trump administration’s cruel family separation policy. For the first time, Mr. Sessions and Ms. Nielsen—who signed the policies that set family separation in motion—must testify under oath in litigation seeking justice for separated families.

In defending this case, filed in 2021, the government recently disclosed a change in its position. The government asserted that these two Cabinet officials were the only decisionmakers whose intent reflects that of the government in adopting the policies. That newly articulated position—which the plaintiff families dispute—led the families to seek a court order allowing their attorneys to question Mr. Sessions and Ms. Nielsen in depositions.

The Court, faulting the government for its sudden, belated shift in position, granted the families’ request and ordered the parties to meet within seven days to schedule the depositions. The Court also will examine “in camera” several documents related to these officials’ consideration of the family separation policy, to assess the government’s claim of privilege in withholding or redacting them.

“On behalf of our clients, we hope this order brings us one step closer to holding the United States government accountable for its officials’ misconduct that deeply traumatized asylum-seeking families,” said Victoria Petty, Staff Attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2018, the three plaintiff families fled persecution and violence in Central America, making the dangerous trek in hopes of exercising their right to seek asylum. After they crossed into the United States, the government forcibly separated the parents from their children (ages 6, 11 and 13 at the time), without notice or explanation. The parents spent weeks in prison-like detention conditions, without knowing if they would see their children again.

“President Biden has described family separation as a ‘human tragedy,’ but his administration is fighting separated families tooth and nail in federal court.” said Bree Bernwanger, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “It should be alarming to everyone who was disgusted and outraged by family separation in 2018 that our government is still defending it in 2023,” said Bree Bernwanger, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.

A copy of the court order is available here. The case is Wilbur P.G., et al. v. U.S., case number 21-cv-04457 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The families are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and Keker, Van Nest & Peters, LLP.

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