Father, son separated in RGV during Trump administration sue federal government

Selvin Aldair Argueta Najera from Guatemala, and his father, Selvin Argueta Caal, were separated in the Rio Grande Valley after entering the U.S. in May of 2018 after the Trump administration implemented the Zero Tolerance policy. (Courtesy photo)

A father and son still suffering the effects of a separation made under the Trump administration in the Rio Grande Valley filed a lawsuit last Wednesday against the federal government.

“They feel that no human should be treated in the way that they were treated,” Fernando Stepensky, a student attorney, of several others and a lead attorney, representing the family, said Monday.

The lawsuit filed in an Illinois federal court described abuses and neglect each experienced as they moved from separation, detention, deportation and release.

Selvin Argueta Caal, the father, and his son, Selvin Aldair Argueta Najera, left their home in Guatemala in 2018. The pair headed to the United States on foot, car and bus; and after an 18-day journey, they arrived in Reynosa on May 18 of that year.

By then, the U.S. began enforcing then Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Zero Tolerance policy that forced thousands of people into prosecution for illegal entry into the U.S., even if it was their first attempt. The decision affected families differently. Migrant parents were separated from their children and taken before a judge who would often deport them. The children, meanwhile, were taken into federal custody.

Both crossed into the U.S. through the Rio Grande and were taken into federal custody and transported to the Rio Grande Valley Processing Center in McAllen where they were separated by officers.

Selvin Jr. was 16 years old at the time and still considered a minor. Although he arrived with his father, the two were unable to remain together at the processing center.

“When Selvin Sr. asked why they were being separated, an officer retorted that it was because they had committed a serious crime,” the lawsuit read. “Selvin Sr. was shocked and confused as to what crime they had committed. He wondered whether the separation was meant to punish them for seeking asylum.”

The father was put in a room next to the room where his son was detained with other minors. A window gave them the opportunity to take a last glimpse of each other for the next two years.

“As CBP corralled Selvin Jr. toward an area with all the separated children, he tearfully asked an official what was going to happen to his father and when he would see his father again,” the lawsuit read. “The official laughed, saying, ‘Your dad isn’t going to go with you. You’re not a little kid. You shouldn’t cry.’”

The father was eventually deported and the son was detained for six months in places where he was sick and received little medical attention, attorneys contend.

Selvin Jr. alleged he and other children were kicked awake by officers.

During his detention at the processing center, he “cried out of anxiety, sadness, and desperation, because he was apart from his father, the officers laughed and humiliated him. The officers taunted him in Spanish, telling him to ‘stop acting like a little girl.’”

He was taken to another detention facility where he was given three cold ham sandwiches and two small water bottles a day. The other 70 boys who were thirsty beyond their rationed water would often compete with each other over a single gallon of “bitter-tasting water” that the officers would put in the cell daily, according to the lawsuit.

Selvin Jr. experienced medical problems while he was in detention — problems that beleaguered the young man for years to come.

The teenager complained of abdominal and testicular pains multiple times. Medical staff gave him ibuprofen pills but the pain became debilitating which resulted in an eventual hospital visit, according to the lawsuit.

Hospital staff told Selvin Jr. he had an infection but he did not receive antibiotics, only more ibuprofen. Now, as a young father and husband, Selvin Jr. struggles performing at work.

“The physical pain that he still has today — whether that’s directly correlated to that or not — it has prevented him from having a full time job,” Stepensky said. “And he has a young daughter now two [years old]. And that certainly has gotten in the way of him being able to provide for his family.”

After six months, Selvin Jr. was released from federal custody to a relative in the U.S. By then, his father was already deported.

Selvin Sr., too, was subject to “inhumane conditions” and lost 20 pounds during his nearly two-month long detention in which he was denied information about his son.

Officers questioned Selvin Sr.’s purpose for entering the U.S., and, at one point, Selvin Sr. alleged, they threw his belongings, including a Bible he brought from Guatemala, into the trash in front of him telling Selvin Sr. that he had “nothing good.”

The father was asked to sign forms in English with no translation provided. He refused to sign on one occasion but signed a form he was told would allow his child to remain in the U.S. A month later, he would be put on a plane and told he was going to be deported back to Guatemala.

A year later, a judge in California ruled that Selvin Sr.’s deportation was unlawful, because he was coerced into signing documents. He was allowed to return to the U.S. on Jan. 2020 where he was finally reunited with his son in Chicago.

While the pair’s story was filled with strife, other separated families have yet to see a similar reunion. As of November 2022, the lawsuit noted, there were still 780 children who had not been reunited with their parents.

Both Selvin Sr. and his son are now living in Chicago. Selvin Jr. is married and has a two-year-old daughter. Selvin Sr.’s other children and wife were allowed to enter the U.S. on humanitarian parole, Stepensky said.

The lawsuit requested damages for emotional distress, negligence, abuse of process, assault against the son and interfering with a familial relationship.

Stepensky said the family believes there’s a greater benefit, too.

“There’s certainly a larger purpose than just for them,” Stepensky said. “Certainly the lawsuit is completely independently focused on the treatment they received, because those are the legal standards, but I’m sure that they’re one of the things that they say that they want to make sure that no one else is ever subjected to that sort of treatment again.”