Texas Civil Rights Project v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Texas Civil Rights Project et al. v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, No. 1:20-cv-02389 (D.D.C., filed Aug. 27, 2020)

In March 2020, the Trump Administration began carrying out summary expulsions pursuant to Title 42 § 265 of the U.S. Code and the CDC’s  implementing regulations. The Administration removed noncitizens without travel documents apprehended at the border – including unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers – without any legal process under the ruse of mitigating the spread of COVID-19. In late July 2020, news began breaking that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had been contracting with private contractors to detain immigrant children as young as one in hotels along the U.S.-Mexico border prior to carrying out such summary expulsions, regardless of whether the child had tested positive for COVID-19 or not. While detained in these hotels, children, including unaccompanied minors, were unable to contact family members, denied access to counsel, and denied any legal process before being removed to countries where many feared persecution.

In response, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) submitted three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), DHS, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to obtain more information about the government’s treatment of unaccompanied children who have crossed the border in recent months. Specifically, the organizations sought records encompassing (1) the standards use to determine whether unaccompanied and undocumented children are immediately expelled or allowed to apply for humanitarian relief; (2) statistics on how many children have been expelled and to where; (3) the secret locations where DHS detains children prior to Title 42 expulsion; and (4) the identity of the companies that DHS had contracted with to transport and detain children. Plaintiffs received no response to their requests.

On August 27, 2020, TCRP and ICAPfiled this suit seeking to compel CBP, ICE, and DHS to conduct a reasonable search and produce records responsive to their FOIA request. 

Documents:

Counsel: Robert D. Friedman, Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Georgetown University Law Center

Contact: Robert Friedman, Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Georgetown University Law Center | rdf34@georgetown.edu

Additional Links:

Father and Son File FTCA Administrative Claims Based on Nine Months of Family Separation

On October 9, 2019, an asylum-seeking father, Mr. L.A., and his son, O.L., filed administrative claims for six million dollars in damages for the trauma they suffered when torn apart under the Trump administration’s family separation policy. The family endured nine months of forced separation in 2018 while the father was unlawfully deported to Guatemala, in spite of expressing a credible fear of persecution in that country.

While in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), at a youth facility called Lincoln Hall in New York, then-17-year-old O.L. was medicated without his parent’s consent in order to “calm” him and dissuade thoughts of escaping from the facility. O.L. was physically assaulted and insulted by a Lincoln Hall staff member; and facility staff simply transferred O.L. to a different part of the facility rather than discipline the offending staff member. Additionally, Lincoln Hall was an abusive and sexualized environment. On two separate occasions, staff completed an ORR Serious Incident Report or “Sexual Abuse SIR,” listing O.L. as a victim of sexualized staff actions. During one incident, a staff member showed O.L. and other children in the facility a pornographic video on his phone. In another incident, a staff member dropped a nude photo of herself in front of O.L.

Both Mr. L.A. and his son endured dehumanizing conditions while being held in the hielera DHS facility prior to and immediately after separation. Mr. L.A. reported freezing temperatures, very limited food, and limited access to drinking water other than from a bathroom sink. At one point, he was packed in a cell with 15 other men, with no beds and a shared toilet without privacy. As the men were not permitted to shower or brush their teeth, the smell in the cell was horrible. Officers left bright fluorescent lights on at all times, conducted rolls calls even at nighttime, and provided only Mylar emergency blankets for sleeping; as a result, Mr. L.A. reports experiencing sleep deprivation.

Mr. L.A. and his son spoke briefly on the phone only twice while they were detained and before Mr. L.A. was deported. Mr. L.A. was devastated to learn his son had been transported across the country to New York, while he remained detained in Texas. After being detained separately for more than one month, Mr. L.A. received word from officers that he would be reunited with his son. However, they were not reunited; and Mr. L.A. was instead put on a plane and deported to Guatemala.

Both Mr. L.A. and his son report prolonged and lasting effects from their forced separation. Mr. L.A. still experiences nightmares, anxiety, and depression, and also survived an attempt on his life once removed to the country from which he sought asylum. O.L. reports experiencing anxiety and depression in the wake of his detention and time spent separated from his father.

The claim letter charges the government with intentionally inflicting emotional pain on the family and punishing them for seeking asylum in the United States. The claims were filed against the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They are brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows individuals to sue the United States for injuries resulting from unlawful conduct of federal officers.

Counsel: Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Morgan, Lewis, & Brockius, LLP

Contact: Matt Adams | Northwest Immigrant Rights Project | 206.957.8611 | matt@nwirp.org

Gonzalez Recinos et al. v. McAleenan et al.

Gonzalez Recinos et al. v. McAleenan et al., No. 1:19-cv-00138 (S.D. Tex. filed Aug. 16, 2019).

This lawsuit was brought as a writ of habeas corpus by individuals detained by CBP in various facilities within the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

The lawsuit alleges that CBP has subjected petitioners to inhumane treatment and harsh conditions in these facilities by: packing them into overcrowded cells for lengthy periods, where they are denied adequate food, water, medical attention, and sanitation facilities, providing inadequate food and water, unsanitary toilets, showering and bathing facilities, and no access to phones, beds, or medical assistance. Petitioners are also alleging that it is CBP’s pattern or practice to deny access to family members and legal counsel.

Plaintiff-petitioners filed an amended petition on July 20, 2019, and a motion for preliminary injunction on August 12. The district court held a hearing on that motion on September 6, 2019. In October of 2019, the court denied plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction under the rationale that granting the requested relief would impose a substantial burden on CBP. The parties then stipulated to dismiss the case.

Counsel: Elisabeth (Lisa) Brodyaga, Refugio del Rio Grande; Jaime M. Diez, Jones and Crane; Thelma O. Garcia, Law Office of Thelma Garcia; Luis Campos, John Becker & Wesley D. Lewis, Haynes and Boone, LLP; Efrén C. Olivares, Texas Civil Rights Project

Contact: Lisa Brodyaga | Refugio del Rio Grande | 956-421-3226 | LisaBrodyaga@aol.com

Blanca Gomez Arellano v. United States

Blanca Gomez Arellano v. United States, No. 2:19-cv-00141 (S.D. Tex., filed May 13, 2019).

This is a wrongful death lawsuit brought by a mother whose son who died trapped in a tractor-trailer container while the vehicle was impounded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). On October 13, 2017, CBP officers detained a tractor-trailer for inspection and discovered an undocumented individual inside. CBP then took the driver and undocumented individual into custody and impounded the truck. Three days later, CBP officers noticed a foul smell and liquid leaking from the truck, and they contacted the local sheriff’s department, who found a decomposing body.

The complaint alleges claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act for negligence, gross negligence, assault and battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A policy manual currently in effect directs CBP officers that “all closed containers must be opened and their contents inventoried” upon the impounding of a vehicle. The compartment in which the victim’s body was found was clearly marked as a “Liftable Lower Bunk.” The complaint alleges that the officers acted negligently or recklessly to cause the victim’s death. The government moved to dismiss the complaint in May of 2019.

Counsel: Texas Civil Rights Project

Contact: Efrén C. Olivares | efren@texascivilrightsproject.org

Gomez Vincente v. United States of America & Barrera

Gomez Vincente, et al., v. United States of America, et al., No. 5:20-cv-00081 (S.D. Tex., filed May 12, 2020)

On May 24, 2018, Border Patrol agent Romualdo Barrera shot and killed Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a twenty-year-old Guatemalan woman, several hundred yards from the U.S.-Mexico border in Rio Bravo, Texas. Claudia was walking through Rio Bravo with a few other people when Agent Barrera confronted the group. Although several members of the group began running, Claudia remained where she was. Agent Barrera drew his weapon, and when Claudia – a petite woman who was not carrying anything that could even remotely be perceived to be a weapon – took a step forward, the agent aimed at her, pulled the trigger, and shot her in the head.

Following the shooting, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a press release claiming that members of Claudia’s group had attacked the agent with “blunt objects” and that Claudia was one of the assailants. It later retracted that statement and issued a new one, removing any references to the blunt objects or allegations that Claudia had assaulted the agent.

On May 23, 2019, Claudia’s family filed an administrative claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for Claudia’s wrongful death, seeking substantial damages and hoping to ensure accountability for the officials’ unlawful acts. When more than six months passed after filing the claim without any action by the agencies, Claudia’s family filed a federal suit against the United States for common law battery, negligence, gross negligence, and reckless conduct pursuant to the FTCA, and against the agent who killed Claudia for excessive, unreasonable force and deprivation of due process in violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

On May 13, 2020, the Plaintiffs filed an emergency motion to expedite discovery, which the court granted in part and denied in part on May 19, 2020. On September 9, 2020, Defendants filed their answer. On September 29, 2020, Defendant Barrera filed a motion to dismiss the Bivens claims against him.

Counsel: Kirkland & Ellis LLP; ACLU of Texas; ACLU Immigrant Rights Project

Contact: Yosef J. Reimer | 212-446-4802 | Yosef.riemer@kirkland.com

FTCA Administrative Complaint on behalf of US Citizen deported by CBP

FTCA Administrative Complaint on behalf of US Citizen deported by CBP

In September of 2018, Julio Cesar Ovalle filed an administrative complaint against the Department of Homeland Security under the Federal Tort and Claims Act for being unlawfully seized and wrongfully deported last June. Mr. Ovalle, 24, is a U.S. citizen who was born in Los Angeles.

Ovalle, a resident of San Antonio, was stopped by a Border Patrol agent on June 11, 2018 while walking along Portanco Road toward his neighborhood. The agent asked for his “papers,” and refused to believe Ovalle’s assertions of his citizenship. Ovalle told the officer he had a passport and other documentation at home, but the agent did not listen and instead took Ovalle’s phone and transported him to the Border Patrol station in Cotulla. Ovalle was deported the next day to Nuevo Laredo.

In Mexico, Ovalle was kidnapped by cartel members and held for ransom with a group of about 80 other immigrants, including recent deportees. Ovalle’s family called Laredo police, who referred them to the FBI. Ovalle was eventually released at one of the international bridges in Nuevo Laredo, and returned to the U.S.

Counsel: Javier Espinoza Garcia | Espinoza Law Firm, PLLC

Press coverage:

Nwaorie v. CBP, et al.

Nwaorie v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, et al., No: 4:18-cv-1406 (S.D. Tex., filed May 3, 2018)

On May 3, 2018, the Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit challenging U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) policy or practice of demanding that owners of seized property sign “hold harmless” agreements for the return of their property, and thereby waive certain constitutional and statutory rights.

On October 31, 2017, CBP seized approximately $40,000 cash from the named Plaintiff, Anthonia Nwaorie, a U.S. citizen, while she was trying to board an international flight to Nigeria. Ms. Nwaorie intended to use more than $30,000 of the funds she had saved up from her work as a nurse to start a medical clinic in Nigeria for women and children.

In December 2017, Ms. Nwaorie, in compliance with the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA), submitted a claim, requesting judicial forfeiture proceedings. When CBP failed to file a forfeiture complaint within 90 days, it became statutorily required to return the seized property.

However, instead of doing so, in April 2018, CBP mailed Ms. Nwaorie a letter, which conditioned the return of her seized cash on her signing a hold harmless agreement. If she did not sign the agreement to waive her statutory and constitutional rights and to indemnify the government for any claims brought by others related to the seized property, CBP threatened to initiate forfeiture proceedings against her. After filing the lawsuit, CBP finally sent her a check in the amount confiscated.

On July 23, 2018, Defendants moved to dismiss all claims, arguing that they are moot and barred by sovereign immunity. On August 27, Plaintiff filed her opposition to Defendants’ motion. Defendants filed a reply in support of their motion on September 4, and Plaintiff filed a surreply on October 3. As of October 2018, the motion is pending.

In May 2019, a magistrate judge recommended dismissal, finding that sovereign immunity barred the claims, and alternatively, the government’s return of Ms. Nwaorie’s money rendered her claims moot. The magistrate judge also recommended dismissal of Nwaorie’s constitutional claims, finding that CBP had a rational basis to subject her to additional searches because of the large amount of money she was carrying.

The plaintiff filed an objection to the magistrate’s memorandum and recommendations. • Unfortunately, the district court judge affirmed the magistrate judge’s recommendations and dismissed the case in August 2019.

Press Releases:

Counsel: Institute for Justice

Contacts: 

Dan Alban | Institute for Justice | dalban@ij.org

Anya Bidwell | Institute for Justice | abidwell@ij.org

J.I. v. USA

J.I. v. USA, No. 1:18-at-00185 (E.D. Cal., filed March 15, 2018)

In the summer of 2016, J.I., a minor, traveled from Guatemala with her older sister to reunite with their mother in the United States. The sisters became lost in the area near the Presidio, Texas and Ojinaga, Chihuahua border. Afraid and thirsty, the sisters flagged down Border Patrol agents for help. The sisters were then taken into custody.

Once J.I. was in custody, a Border Patrol agent removed her from the cell she was in with her sister and took her to a small room, where he forced J.I. to remove her clothing and expose her breasts and genitalia. He then assaulted and battered J.I.

On March 21, 2017, J.I. submitted an administrative claim to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), as required under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). In a letter dated September 27, 2017, CBP replied on behalf of all named agencies and denied the administrative tort claim in full.

On March 15, 2018, the ACLU of Northern California filed an FTCA lawsuit against CBP alleging assault and battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. The lawsuit also included constitutional claims (violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments). The parties agreed to settle on October 19, 2018, and reached an agreement that includes a $125,000 payment to J.I. It is unclear whether CBP disciplined the agent, Fernando Saucedo III, and whether he is still employed by CBP.

Related Documents:

Counsel: ACLU of Northern California

Contact:  Angélica Salceda | ACLU of Northern California | asalceda@aclunc.org

 

R.M.H. v. Lloyd

On October 30, 2017, the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, and Washington Square Legal Services, Inc. filed suit against the Office of Refugee Resettlement and CBP following the arrest and detention of 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez, who came to the United States when she was three months old and who suffers from cerebral palsy. On October 24, 2017, Rosa Maria was on her way to a children’s’ hospital for gall bladder surgery when the vehicle she was in, driven by a U.S. citizen, was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint. Despite being told that she was on her way to the hospital for an imminent surgery, Border Patrol agents detained her for thirty minutes before allowing her to depart.

Agents then followed her to the hospital, went inside, and tracked her movements up to and during the time that she was in surgery. When attorneys for the hospital told the agents that they had to leave, the agents refused to do so, telling the hospital that they intended to arrest Rosa Maria and deport her when she was released from the hospital. When she was discharged the day after her surgery, the agents arrested her directly from her hospital bed and forcibly took her to an Office of Refugee Resettlement Shelter for unaccompanied minors.

On October 30, 2017, counsel for Rosa Maria filed a lawsuit alleging that the Border Patrol’s actions violated Rosa Maria’s statutory and constitutional rights, and sought a temporary restraining order seeking her immediate release. On November 3, 2017, the government released her to the care of her family. The case was voluntarily dismissed the same day. On January 8, 2018, the Border Patrol announced that it would take steps to expedite emergency medical vehicles through checkpoints.

Serrano v. CBP

Serrano v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection et al., Nos. 2:17-cv-00048 (W.D. Tex., filed Sept. 6, 2017) and 18-50977 (5th Cir., filed Nov. 21, 2018)

On September 6, 2017, the Institute for Justice brought a class action suit against Customs and Border Protection over the agency’s practice of engaging in civil forfeiture of vehicles at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border. The plaintiff, Gerardo Serrano, was detained in 2015 when crossing into Mexico at the Eagle Pass, Texas port of entry. After CBP officers found a small amount of pistol ammunition in his truck, they seized the vehicle. CBP held his truck for over two years without ever filing a civil forfeiture action in court against him, despite requiring him to post thousands of dollars for a bond purportedly to allow him to challenge the seizure. Because the agency never filed a forfeiture action, Mr. Serrano was given no opportunity to have his day in court and challenge CBP’s seizure.

His complaint alleges that CBP seizes hundreds of vehicles owned by American citizens each year and refuses to hold prompt post-seizure hearings at which the owners can challenge the seizure. The class action suit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief requiring CBP to hold prompt post-seizure hearings, as well as compensation for Mr. Serrano. In October 2017, CBP returned Mr. Serrano’s truck without subjecting it to a forfeiture action. On December 13, 2017, Defendants moved to dismiss the suit. The parties completed briefing on January 19, 2018.

On July 23, 2018, the magistrate judge issued a Report and Recommendation in which he advised granting Defendants’ motions to dismiss.

On September 28, 2018, the district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendations and issued an order denying class certification and granting all motions to dismiss. Mr. Serrano appealed the district court decision to the Fifth Circuit on November 21, 2018.

In April 2019, the plaintiff filed his opening brief with the Fifth Circuit. Several amicus briefs were filed in support. The government’s answering brief was filed in August 2019. As of October 2019, those briefs are still pending. The government filed a notice of supplemental authority regarding Cantu v. Moody 933 F.3d 414 (5th Cir. Aug. 5, 2019) on January 28, 2020. The court heard oral argument on February 4, 2020. On February 26, 2020, the plaintiff filed a notice of supplemental authority regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in Hernandez v. Mesa.

Fifth Circuit Pleadings:

Counsel: Anya Bidwell & Robert Everett Johnson | Institute for Justice