Administrative Complaint Series on CBP’s Abuse and Mistreatment of People Detained in its Custody

Administrative Complaint Series on CBP’s Abuse and Mistreatment of People Detained in its Custody

Between January and July 2020, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, in tandem with the ACLU Border Rights Center, prepared and submitted a series of administrative complaints to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) detailing U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s abuse and mistreatment of people in its custody. The complaints were based on a series of 103 interviews conducted with individuals recently released from CBP custody between March and July 2019.

Complaint #1 – Mistreatment of Pregnant People

The first complaint, filed January 22, 2020, focused on CBP’s abuse and mistreatment of detained pregnant people. One detained woman who was six months pregnant detailed how a Border Patrol  agent forcibly slammed her face against a chain link fence while other agents looked on and did nothing. Border Patrol then detained her for three days without medical care. Another woman reported her fear of her pregnant belly being kicked while having to sleep on the crowded floor of the holding cell. When she began to experience abdomen pain and other symptoms and asked for medical attention, Border Patrol agents told her she was lying.

The complaint contains numerous reports of pregnant individuals being denied not only medical care, but access to clean clothes and other basic hygienic necessities.

The complaint implores DHS OIG to conduct an immediate review of CBP’s treatment of pregnant people in its custody, including recommending CBP stop detaining pregnant people altogether and adopt explicit policies to ensure for adequate, timely medical care of pregnant individuals.

Complaint #2 – Mistreatment of Sick Children

The second complaint, filed on February 18, 2020, focused on the treatment of sick children in CBP and U.S. Border Patrol facilities. The complaint details how Border Patrol continued to hold a weeks-old infant who experienced significant weight loss while detained in custody against the express and repeated advice of medical professionals. In another case, Border Patrol held a five-year-old child for eight days without providing any medical attention for his persistent fever and diarrhea. The complaint also notes how, as of the time of its filing, at least seven children have died in CBP custody or shortly after being released, many of whom received delayed or no medical care. Finally, the complaint calls on DHS OIG to review CBP’s treatment of sick children in its custody, recommend that CBP prioritize the release of all children, and strictly prohibit continued detention of sick children.  

Complaint #3 – Separation of Families in CBP Processing & Detention

The third complaint, filed on April 15, 2020, focused on CBP’s separation of families during detention and processing and the agency’s refusal to implement a detainee locator system. The complaint noted that despite the supposed halting of DHS’s well-publicized separation of young children from their parents, family separations continue to occur as a result of CBP processing and detention practices. Border Patrol and DHS have adopted a very restrictive definition of “family” that includes only legal guardians accompanied by minor children and gives Border Patrol agents unilateral discretion to decide whether to separate family members, resulting in countless ongoing family separations. The ACLU’s investigation documented the separation of a grandmother and her nine-year-old grandson, a woman and her sister, and a mother and her non-minor son, among countless others. Noting the many ways in which family separations intensify trauma for already vulnerable asylum seekers of all ages and the many extreme barriers to locating and communicating with loved ones who are detained, the complaint calls on DHS OIG to recommend CBP implement a detainee locator system, refrain from detaining family units, and prioritize the prompt release of families. It also recommends adoption of a more expansive definition of “family”.

Complaint #4 – Verbal Abuse of Detained Individuals

The fourth complaint in the series, filed July 7, 2020, focused on U.S. Border Patrol’s verbal abuse of detained individuals. This complaint highlights Border Patrol’s “staggering culture of cruelty” and “systematic mistreatment and dehumanization of vulnerable people.” Detained individuals reported being told “Forget about asylum, we might just take away your daughter,” “Get out of here, what are you doing here if you don’t even speak English, you are worthless,” “If you keep complaining I will put you with the dogs,” “[Y]ou broke the law, you have no rights,” “I am treating you the way illegals should be treated,” and a litany of other abusive slurs. The complaint calls on DHS OIG to recommend CBP strictly prohibit personnel from verbally abusing individuals in its custody, adopt zero-tolerance policies for anti-immigrant and racist employee conduct, and create a new complaint process that allows for timely review and increased transparency.

Documents:

Counsel: ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties; ACLU Border Rights Center

Contact: Mitra Ebadolahi, ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties | mebadolahi@aclusandiego.org

Administrative Complaint Regarding U.S. Border Patrol’s Mistreatment of Honduran Family Seeking Asylum and Summary Expulsion of Newborn U.S. Citizen

Administrative Complaint Regarding U.S. Border Patrol’s Mistreatment of Honduran Family Seeking Asylum and Summary Expulsion of Newborn U.S. Citizen

On July 10, 2020, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLU-SDIC) and Jewish Family Service of San Diego (JFS) submitted an administrative complaint to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), regarding U.S. Border Patrol’s mistreatment of a Honduran family seeking asylum and the agency’s summary expulsion of the family, including their newborn U.S. citizen child, to Mexico. The family, including the mother, father, and their nine-year-old son, fled Honduras after gangs extorted them, made repeated death threats, beat the nine-year-old with a gun, and took over their house.

In early March 2020, the family made an initial attempt to seek asylum, but Border Patrol force them to wait in Mexico for an immigration court hearing. Fearing for their safety in Mexico, on June 27, 2020, the family, including the mother, who was now nine months pregnant, attempted to cross into the U.S. once again and turned themselves in to the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol agents separated the family, sending the father and son back to Mexico in the middle of the night, despite their repeated pleas to stay with the mother. Agents sent the mother to the hospital, where she gave birth to her child – a natural-born U.S. citizen. Just two days after giving birth, Border Patrol agents took the mother and her newborn U.S. citizen child to the border and directed them to walk over the border back into Mexico, even though the mother had repeatedly expressed a fear of persecution there. Once back in Mexico, the mother and child were eventually able to reunite with the father and son. The family contacted JFS from Tijuana, where they reported that neither the newborn child nor his mother had received any medical care since birth.

ACLU-SDIC and JFS filed an administrative complaint on the family’s behalf, calling for an urgent investigation of Border Patrol’s treatment of the family, including the forced expulsion of the newborn U.S. citizen and his mother to Mexico and the forced removal of the father and son. The complaint also emphasizes that Border Patrol twice failed to ensure that the family had access to non-refoulement interviews, which are intended to ensure people are not removed to countries where they are likely to face persecution – a clear violation of both U.S. law and agency policy. In addition to the investigation, the complaint calls on DHS OIG to recommend CBP immediately exempt all pregnant persons from MPP, promptly release people forced to give birth in CBP custody and their families as soon as possible after birth, and ensure CBP complies with their non-refoulement obligations and hold officers who do not accountable, among others.

Documents:

Counsel: ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties; Jewish Family Services of San Diego

Contact: Mitra Ebadolahi, ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties | mebadolahi@aclusandiego.org

Additional Links:

Doe v. Wolf

Doe v. Wolf, No. 3:19-cv-02119-DMS-AGS (S.D. Cal., filed Nov. 5, 2019) and 20-55279 (9th Cir., filed Mar. 13, 2020)

People who are seeking asylum but have been forced to wait in Mexico under the Trump Administration’s so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” have a right to not be returned to Mexico if it is more likely than not that they will be persecuted or tortured there. But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security blocked such individuals from consulting with their lawyers prior to and during life-or-death interviews on this matter, known as non-refoulement interviews. The ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties filed a class action lawsuit to challenge this systemic denial of the right to counsel in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody.

On January 14, 2020, the District Court entered a preliminary injunction guaranteeing access to counsel to a class of people detained in CBP custody while awaiting and undergoing non-refoulement interviews. The District Court first found that 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(2)(b)(ii), which prohibits judicial review of a “decision or action” that is “in the discretion of the Attorney General or the Secretary of Homeland Security,” did not foreclose review of the Plaintiffs’ claims. The Court further found that 5 U.S.C. § 555(b), which provides that “[a] person compelled to appear in person before an agency . . . is entitled to be accompanied, represented, and advised by counsel,” applies to non-refoulement interviews. As such, the District Court ordered that “Respondents may not conduct class members’ non-refoulement interviews without first affording the interviewees access to their retained counsel both before and during any such interview.”  The government has appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Oral argument is scheduled for November 13.

Documents:

Counsel: ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties

Contact: Monika Langarica, Immigrants’ Rights Staff Attorney, ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties | mlangarica@aclusandiego.org

Castellanos v. United States

Castellanos v. United States, No. 18-CV-2334-JM-BLM (S.D. Cal., filed Oct. 10, 2018)

In this case, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents’ excessive use of force during a routine inspection at Calexico Port of Entry left a seventy-five-year-old man in the hospital with a fractured elbow and displaced ribs. On December 17, 2017, Jesus and Raquel Castellanos, at the time seventy-five and seventy-one years old, and their adult son, Marco Castellanos, were in secondary inspection at the Calexico Port of Entry, when a CBP officer began yelling at Marco for using his cellphone. Marco explained he was responding to a message, put his cellphone away, and asked the CBP officer to bring a supervisor, but the CBP officer preceded to put Marco in a chokehold and a group of officers gathered and slammed him against a fence.

Jesus Castellanos pleaded with the officers to let his son go and stop assaulting him. CBP Officer Hedlund shoved Mr. Castellanos, threw him over a bench, and punched him in the chest and ribs multiple times. As Mr. Castellanos lay face down on the bench, Officer Hedlund continued to put all his weight on Mr. Castellanos and twisted his elbow with such force that it was fractured. Mr. Castellanos also suffered multiple displaced ribs from the assault.

Officer Hedlund and two other CBP officers took Mr. Castellanos to a holding cell and when he told them his arm had been injured, Officer Hedlund further bent his arm.  Mr. Castellanos was able to get the attention of a supervisor who called an ambulance that arrived thirty minutes later and took him to the hospital. While her husband was being assaulted and detained, Mrs. Castellanos, who suffers from dementia, pleaded for the officers to stop and became confused and distraught as CBP officials did not explain to her where they had taken her husband or son.

On January 12, 2017, Mr. and Mrs. Castellanos filed administrative complaints under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), but received no response. On October 10, 2018, they brought this action seeking damages under Bivens and the FTCA. The second amended complaint alleges Officer Hedlund is liable for Fourth Amendment violations under Bivens. The complaint further seeks to hold the United States liable under the FTCA for assault, battery, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment under the FTCA.

In February 2020, the district court denied the government’s motion for summary judgment. After the summary judgement motion was denied, the Castellanos family reached a settlement agreement with the government on April 24, 2020. Details of the settlement agreement have not been disclosed. It is unknown if Officer Hedlund or any of the other CBP officers involved were disciplined in any way.

Counsel: Iredale & Yoo, APC

Contact: Eugene Iredale | 619.233.1525 | contact@iredalelaw.com

Sabra v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Sabra v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, No. 1:20-cv-00681-CKK (D.D.C., filed Mar. 9, 2020)

On September 11, 2015, Fleta Christina Cousin Sabra—a U.S. citizen and accredited humanitarian worker—traveled with a family of asylum-seeking Syrian refugees and the refugees’ lawful permanent resident relative from Mexico into the United States by way of a U.S. port of entry in Southern California. When Ms. Sabra explained to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer that the family wished to seek asylum, the officer handcuffed all members of the group, including Ms. Sabra. CBP officers detained Ms. Sabra for several hours, during which time they insulted her Muslim faith, pulled off her hijab, and physically assaulted her.

In July 2016, Ms. Sabra submitted a request for agency records pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regarding the September 11, 2015 encounter, CBP’s subsequent related records, CBP’s investigation, communications regarding the family of Syrian refugees, and other CBP records regarding Ms. Sabra. In response, CBP produced only five pages of records.

Ms. Sabra filed this action on March 9, 2020, seeking to compel CBP to conduct a reasonable search and produce records responsive to her FOIA request. On May 29, 2020, CBP made an initial production and reported that it anticipates making monthly, rolling releases. Ms. Sabra moved for judgment on the pleadings. CBP made additional productions in June, July, and August of 2020. As of August 21, 2020, the court has held Ms. Sabra’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in abeyance pending parties’ discussions regarding additional productions.

Counsel: Law Office of R. Andrew Free

Contact: R. Andrew Free | (844) 321-3221 | Andrew@ImmigrantCivilRights.com

FTCA Claim by Estate of Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez

On November 22, 2019, the siblings of Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez and a representative of her estate filed an administrative claim for damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) after Roxsana, a Honduran transgender woman, died in immigration custody.

After fleeing horrific violence in Honduras, Roxsana and seventeen other transgender asylum seekers presented themselves at the U.S. port of entry in San Ysidro, California on May 9, 2018. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers took Roxsana into custody and failed to conduct any medical screening, though she requested to see a doctor for what she described as an infection.

CBP held Roxsana in a processing facility commonly referred to as an “hielera” or “ice box” because of its frigid temperatures. While in CBP custody, Roxsana’s health rapidly deteriorated. She coughed so much that she had difficulty breathing and she vomited regularly. The food CBP officers offered caused her to suffer diarrhea, stomach pain, and further vomiting. CBP officers refused to provide any medical assistance until other asylum seekers stopped eating in protest.

CBP agents brought Roxsana to a hospital, but remained present during her exam and kept her in shackles. Rather than providing a Spanish interpreter, the officers primarily communicated with the doctors themselves. The hospital cleared Roxsana for immigration detention before learning that she was HIV positive.

Until her death on May 25, 2018, Roxsana remained in immigration custody, transferred between facilities as her health continued to deteriorate. By the time Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers brought her to the hospital on May 17, 2018, doctors found her condition “way beyond” their ability to provide meaningful care. An independent autopsy determined the cause of death was “most probably severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection, with the probable presence of one or more opportunistic infections.” The doctor also found evidence of physical abuse, with deep tissue bruising.

In the November 2019 claim, and a later supplement, Roxsana’s family and estate charged the United States as liable for wrongful death, negligence, negligent hiring and supervision, failure to provide medical care, medical malpractice, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and loss of chance of survival.

Press Coverage:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/us/trans-woman-roxsana-hernandez-ice-autopsy.html

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/adolfoflores/ice-surveillance-video-transgender-asylum-seeker

Counsel: Law Office of R. Andrew Free

Contact: R. Andrew Free | (844) 321-3221 | Andrew@ImmigrantCivilRights.com

Clear, et al. v. CBP

Clear, et al., v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, No. 1:2019-cv-07079 (E.D.N.Y., filed Dec. 18, 2019)

The American Civil Liberties Union and CUNY Law School CLEAR Project filed a FOIA lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in December 2019 over its Tactical Terrorism Response Teams (TTRT), which plaintiffs argue are discriminatory against individuals from the Middle East.

The complaint alleges that CBP is deploying secret teams across at least 46 airports and other U.S. ports of entry which target, detain, and interrogate innocent travelers. Frequently TTRT officers request that travelers unlock their electronic devices and subject them to search. While TTRTs operate largely in secret, CBP has publicly admitted the teams are explicitly targeting individuals who are not on any government watchlist and whom the government has never identified as posing a security risk. Former CBP Commissioner and form acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, has indicated TTRT officers may rely on their “instincts” or hunches to target travelers.

CBP’s production and production disputes remain ongoing.

Additionally, the ACLU of Northern California has filed an administrative complaint on behalf of an individual who was detained and interrogated by a TTRT.

CBP’s Public Statements about TTRTs:

Press:

Counsel: American Civil Liberties Union

Contact: Scarlet Kim | American Civil Liberties Union Foundation | ScarletK@aclu.org

Lewis v. Unknown Agents of the Department of Homeland Security

Lewis v. Unknown Agents of the United States Department of Homeland Security, No. 3:19-cv-00600 (S.D. Cal., filed Apr. 1, 2019)

Sams v. Unknown Agents of the United States Department of Homeland Security, No. 3:19-cv-00612 (S.D. Cal., filed Apr. 2, 2019)

These lawsuits arise from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s detention of two individuals who were experiencing withdrawal from opiates and alcohol and were denied medical treatment. The plaintiffs bring claims under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), alleging violations of their Fifth Amendment Rights.

Mr. Lewis, a U.S. citizen and military veteran, was arrested by DHS at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in February 2019. He alleges that he told the arresting officers of his history of substance abuse, prompting laughter. He began experiencing the symptoms of withdrawal, and instead of being given medical treatment, was transferred back-and-forth between the San Diego Metropolitan Correction Center and DHS custody. Mr. Lewis spent four days in DHS custody experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, unable to move or eat, all the while requesting medical attention which was never given.

The facts of Ms. Sam’s case are similar. In January 2019, DHS officers interrogated and detained her. Despite advising officers of her substance abuse history, she was placed in a small holding cell. She remained in DHS custody for four days, during which time she experienced grave symptoms of withdrawal and repeatedly requested medical attention. Her requests were ignored.

Counsel: Brody McBride, Singleton Law Firm, APC

NBC 7 San Diego v. United States Department of Homeland Security

NBC 7 San Diego et al v. United States Department of Homeland Security et al., No. 1:19-cv-01146 (D.D.C., filed Apr. 22, 2019)

In March 2019, NBC 7 San Diego reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) maintains a secret database of lawyers, journalists, and others who were covering the migrant caravan or advocating for asylum seekers. Several of those in the database reported spending hours in secondary screening, and at least three people reported being barred from crossing into Mexico.

NBC reported that CBP secretly tracks these individuals under the aegis of “Operation Secure Line,” the moniker for its efforts to deter and intimidate caravans of asylum seekers. The agency’s proffered justification for maintaining this secret database is that the people listed were somehow involved with an incident in which a large group of asylum seekers approached the border barrier, leading CBP to respond with tear gas.

The existence of this database attracted the attention of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, prompting a letter to DHS leadership requesting further information on the tracking of journalists and advocates.

On April 22, 2019, NBC 7 San Diego filed this lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seeking records that reference “Operation Secure Line” and the secret database. CBP continues to deny the data base sought exists. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment.

Counsel: The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press

Contact: Katie Townsend | 202-795-9300 | ktownsend@rcfp.org

Innovation Law Lab v. Nielsen

Innovation Law Lab et al. v. Nielsen, No. 3:19-cv-00807 (N.D. Cal., filed Feb. 14, 2019)

On December 20, 2018, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen announced a new government policy, the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), which would force noncitizens seeking admission from Mexico to return to Mexico to await their removal proceedings. The Trump Administration voiced its intention to implement the policy “on a large scale basis,” beginning first with San Ysidro Port of Entry in California on January 28, 2019.

A lawsuit challenging this forced return policy (commonly known as “Remain in Mexico,” or RIM), was brought on behalf of legal organizations that serve asylum seekers and eleven asylum seekers from Central America. Defendants include DHS, CBP, USCIS and ICE. The complaint explains that the individual plaintiffs are particularly vulnerable to, and many have already suffered, serious violence and discrimination while stranded in Mexico. Furthermore, without access to legal representation, information regarding immigration court hearings, or the right to lawfully work in Mexico, these individuals have been effectively deprived of the right to apply for asylum in the United States as a result of the MPP/RIM policy.

The lawsuit alleges that procedural deficiencies in the MPP/RIM policy undermine the United States’ domestic and international legal obligations to ensure nonrefoulement of individuals who have expressed a fear of return to Mexico. In addition, the complaint specifies the grossly deficient—and at times abusive—practices of CBP officers in implementing the MPP/RIM policy. The complaint recounts cursory interviews during which plaintiffs routinely were not asked about fear of return to Mexico; were not provided explanations of the process to which they were subjected; were coerced into signing documents they did not understand or wish to sign; and were questioned by U.S. government officers who did not speak their language and who verbally abused or threatened them.

MPP/RIM also substantially interferes with legal organizations seeking to serve asylum seekers and other immigrant populations, straining and diverting these organizations’ resources as they scramble to assist asylum seekers stranded in Mexico. The complaint alleges that Defendants’ failure to comply with the notice and comment requirements established under the Administrative Procedures Act is also a violation of law.

On April 8, 2019, the federal district court issued a preliminary injunction blocking MPP/RIM. The government appealed, and on May 7, 2019, the Ninth Circuit granted DHS’s motion for a stay of the preliminary injunction while the appeal remained pending; this permitted MPP/RIM to go back into effect. The Ninth Circuit heard oral argument on the merits of the government’s appeal of the preliminary injunction grant on October 1, 2019.

On February 28, 2020, the Ninth Circuit denied the government’s appeal. That same day, the government filed an emergency motion requesting a stay of the preliminary injunction pending disposition of a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court or an immediate administrative stay. That evening, the Ninth Circuit granted the government an administrative stay pending briefing by the parties. On March 4, 2020, following briefing, the Ninth Circuit granted the government’s stay motion in part and denied it in part. The stay was denied with respect to the Ninth Circuit’s holding that MPP violated federal law, affirming the Ninth Circuit’s belief in the policy’s illegality. However, the stay was granted in part and denied in part with respect to the injunctive relief. The order permitted enforcement of MPP nationwide through March 11, 2020, but thereafter prohibited MPP from operating only in the Ninth Circuit.

On March 11, 2020, the government applied for a stay of the preliminary injunction to the Supreme Court, which granted a stay pending filing and disposition of a petition for a writ of certiorari. If the writ is denied, the stay will terminate automatically. If the writ is granted, the stay will terminate upon judgment of the Court. On April 10, 2020, DHS petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court and on October 19, 2020, the Court granted certiorari.

Counsel: Judy Rabinovitz, Michael Tan, Omar Jadwat, Katrina Eiland, Julie Veroff, Lee Gelernt, Anand Balakrishnan, & Daniel Galindo, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project; Sean Riordan, ACLU of Northern California; Melissa Crow, Mary Bauer, Saira Draper, & Gracie Willis, Southern Poverty Law Center; Blaine Bookey, Karen Musalo, Eunice Lee, Kathryn Jastram, & Sayoni Maitra, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.

Contact: Judy Rabinovitz | ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project | jrabinovitz@aclu.org