A U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Chula Vista / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A series of complaints submitted to federal authorities by the ACLU of San Diego and ACLU Border Rights Center allege that people have suffered serious abuses while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody.

The complaints stem from more than a hundred interviews conducted between March and July 2019 in San Diego and Tijuana with people who had recently been released from CBP custody.

The first complaint, which was submitted in January with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, focuses on the mistreatment, neglect and abuse of pregnant women in custody.

It includes the account of a 25-year-old Honduran asylum-seeker, known only as Amaya, who was detained for 18 days while five months pregnant. During that time, she lost approximately 22 pounds, according to the complaint, and developed a vaginal infection after she was denied a request for clean undergarments for two weeks.

In another account, a 35-year-old Honduran woman, Irene, was two months pregnant and HIV-positive when she was brought into custody. During her first night of detention, she experienced heavy vaginal bleeding and painful cramping, but didn’t receive any medical attention, according to the complaint. She said she wasn’t given a sanitary napkin, wasn’t permitted to shower to clean off and wasn’t allowed to see or speak with her husband. When she was eventually transferred to the Otay Mesa Detention Center after 12 days in Border Patrol custody, she was no longer pregnant, the complaint states.

KPBS has also found at least four pregnant women who were turned away by CBP agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, even though they had been given a court date in the United States.

The latest ACLU complaint, filed last week, deals with the treatment of children.

“The inadequacies of CBP’s own policies — and the agency’s failure to adhere to even these minimal standards, however inadequate — have led to a slew of preventable tragedies,” the complaint reads. “Children have been denied clean clothing and adequate food, and have been kept in crowded, unsanitary conditions in which they are exposed to shingles, scabies, chickenpox, and the flu. In the past two years, at least seven children have died in CBP custody or shortly after being released, many after receiving delayed medical care or being denied care altogether.”

The ACLU also highlighted a case involving a child who swallowed a choking hazard, turned purple and began wheezing while agents interrogated his mother in another room. He wasn’t brought to the hospital until two hours later. The group also found cases where Border Patrol agents confiscated life-sustaining medication from children with chronic health conditions, without providing any immediate or follow-up medical attention.

Two more complaints that have yet to be filed will deal with family separations and verbal abuse in CBP custody, said Mitra Ebadolahi, an ACLU senior staff attorney. They’ll likely be released in the next four to six weeks.

“We’re continuing to monitor detention-related abuse very closely and we will continue to put out these types of projects,” Ebadolahi said.

There have been several other troubling accounts recently about children in DHS custody:

  • United Nations researchers found that the U.S. held 69,550 migrant children in government custody in 2019 — that’s more children detained away from their parents than any other country, NBC reports.
  • The Washington Post revealed that information from a Honduran teenager’s government-mandated therapy sessions was passed along to ICE and used against him in court. This practice is happening more in migrant shelters throughout the country.
  • A girl who was separated from her family at the border at age 10 emains in a shelter separated from her family at age 17. (Reveal)

Digging Deep Into Asylum

The story of Bárbara, a Nicaraguan asylum-seeker awaiting her asylum proceedings in Mexico, reveals the capriciousness of the U.S. asylum system. San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Kate Morrissey has been following Bárbara’s case for months, and even traveled to Nicaragua to talk to witnesses to corroborate her story. Morrissey describes what could be a strong asylum case, in theory, but asylum decisions are so inconsistent and there are so many obstacles — like the fact that her witnesses are scared to write testimonies and mail them to the U.S. for her hearing — that no one knows what will actually happen to her.

Bárbara’s story is the first of a multi-part series digging into the U.S. asylum system, which has been at the center of many of the Trump administration’s border policies.

There have also been several interesting stories that have come out of court filings related to a legal challenge of “metering,” which is another policy intended to slow asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Associated Press found that while the Trump administration claimed it didn’t have room to hold asylum-seekers and used that reasoning to force people to wait in Mexico until there was space, many holding cells along the Mexican border were less than half-full and some were even empty.

In a deposition, a CBP officer in Tecate said supervisors instructed them to lie about not having space to process asylum-seekers at the border and turn them away, Buzzfeed reports.

  • The New Yorker wrote the definitive profile on Stephen Miller, who has been shaping Trump’s immigration policy. “This is all I care about,” Miller says in the piece. “I don’t have a family. I don’t have anything else. This is my life.”

More Border News

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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