After more than a decade away from their mother, two teenage sisters fled their violent surroundings in Guatemala in hopes of reuniting with her in Fresno, California. They traveled more than 1,500 miles by bus before crossing on foot into the Texas desert, where they became lost. They flagged down a passing U.S. Customs and Border Protection truck for help.
After the sisters were dropped off at an intake office in Presidio, Texas, a Customs and Border Protection officer took their backpacks – containing the only things they brought with them – and, allegedly, far more.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed two administrative tort claims against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the border patrol’s parent agency, on behalf of the sisters after they said an officer sexually assaulted them during their detainment.
The claim asks for $1.5 million in damages – $750,000 for each sister – as well as answers, such as the identity of their alleged attacker and whether he was disciplined or charged with the assaults.
Daniel Hetlage, a spokesman for the Border Patrol, said the agency could not comment on pending litigation. He stressed the agency takes seriously all allegations of misconduct of officers against those in custody, and cooperates with all administrative or criminal investigations into alleged conduct by its personnel – both on or off-duty.
The elder sister, who asked for anonymity to protect herself from government retaliation or privacy invasion, spoke to The Fresno Bee on Monday. Now 20, the young woman’s mother and now-17-year-old sister, who also was allegedly assaulted, sat near her as she recounted the night of July 11, 2016.
“The agent got nervous and told us to stop crying,” she said through her ACLU lawyer, Angelica Salceda, who acted as her interpreter. “He gave us blankets and food to get us to stop. He told us what he was doing was his job. He told me that what he did was for his own safety, because sometimes people bring a tool.”
The officer then showed the frightened woman a knife.
I took off my sweater, then my shirt. I kept asking him why. Then I took off my tank top. He asked me to take off my bra, but I didn’t want to, so I loosened it so he could see inside.
Guatemalan woman represented by the ACLU, on Border Patrol officer’s strip search
As she told her story, her eyes remained fixed on a table before her. Her mother and sister cried as she spoke. She did not.
She said she and her sister had tried unsuccessfully to flag a passing customs truck before another one noticed them and stopped. The two officers inside asked for their names and inquired if they were here illegally. They were, the older sister said. The officers then asked if they were carrying anything that could harm the agents. They were not, she said.
The officers took the sisters to a office, placed them in a holding cell and left the building. Soon after, a third officer approached.
“He took me to the pantry and told me he had to search me for his own safety,” the older sister said. “I took off my sweater, then my shirt. I kept asking him why. Then I took off my tank top. He asked me to take off my bra, but I didn’t want to, so I loosened it so he could see inside.”
The officer then lifted her bra and began touching her breasts, she said. He told her to take off her underwear.
“I asked why, and he said, ‘For security,’” she said.
After she removed them, the officer began touching her genitals, she said. After a short time, she was allowed to put her clothes back on, and the officer returned her to the cell.
“He told my sister: ‘Now it’s your turn,’” the older sister said. “She came back crying. I asked her what happened. She said she didn’t know if what the agent did was just him doing his job.”
That’s when the officer offered the food and blankets.
Some time later, the sisters waited on a bench while their alleged attacker attempted to enter their information into his computer. When one of the officers who picked them up returned and asked why she was crying, the older sister just looked down.
She noticed the first two officers had brought back three men for detainment. If those officers searched the men the same way she and her sister were treated, she reasoned, then maybe what happened actually was part of the job.
The men were not searched.
While the alleged attacker took her sister’s fingerprints, the older teen approached the other two officers and asked if what he did was correct.
This case highlights the abuses that can happen at the hands of officers.
ACLU lawyer Angelica Salceda
One officer appeared surprised, but the other angrily called her a liar who was crying only because she soon would be separated from her sister. The angry officer took the older sister back to the holding cell.
The Border Patrol has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual assault in detention centers. It requires any employee alerted of assault to report it to a superior.
A while later, another officer arrived and took her to a room with the two original officers and some new faces. One asked her to tell him what happened. When she did, he seemed surprised and told her he was sorry. He then asked her to remain silent while her sister told her story.
The officer asked the younger sister to describe the room she was taken to. When it matched the older sister’s description, she said the officer who recently called her a liar told her “my friend is in serious trouble.”
An investigator arrived. Both sisters gave written statements.
The next morning, the sisters were transferred to a detention center about an hour away. They were released two days later, and their confiscated backpacks were returned.
The sisters were reunited with their mother, who didn’t know they were coming, on July 17. Their mother has lived in the United States for 12 years.
Salceda, the sisters’ lawyer, said Wednesday’s filings were the first step toward justice for her clients. Homeland Security now has six months to respond. If there is no response, or the two sides don’t reach an agreement with the government, the ACLU can file a lawsuit against Homeland Security on behalf of the sisters.
“We know that (Customs and Border Protection) does have a history of documented abuses that include physical and verbal abuses, sexual assault and fatal shootings,” Salceda said. “This case highlights the abuses that can happen at the hands of officers.”
She continued: “Given the rhetoric and the philosophy of this new administration – of wanting to give even more freedom and take the shackles off of border patrol as (White House press secretary) Sean Spicer has described – it even raises more alarms because of these types of incidences. Especially given the indication that they want to hire 5,000 more border patrol agents.”
The sisters have different attorneys handling their immigration status, Salceda said. The ACLU is only representing them for the federal claim.
Vivek Malik, an immigration lawyer with offices in Fresno and St. Peters, Missouri, and who is not handling the sisters’ case, said what allegedly occurred with the sisters was “definitely not standard procedure.” Border Patrol searches are governed the same way as Travel Safety Administration searches of air passengers, meaning a woman officer must execute the pat-down check of any female detainee. Strip searches do happen, Malik said, but typically for cases in which drug smuggling is suspected.
According to a Homeland Security policy memo dated March 7, 2014, officers of the opposite sex are allowed to pat down and strip search detainees of the opposite sex only in “extingent circumstances.” These were clarified as “temporary and unforeseen circumstances that require immediate action in order to combat a threat to the security or institutional order of a facility or a threat to the safety or security of any person.”
The memo also requires all cross-gender searches to be documented.
Claims of sexual assault against the Border Patrol have been brought before.
A CBS News investigation found 35 sexual misconduct cases against Border Patrol agents from 2012-14. From these cases, at least 21 people were indicted or pleaded guilty to charges ranging from possession of child pornography to rape.
A 2010 Amnesty International report found an estimated six out of every 10 migrant women and girls experienced some form of sexual violence while making their way to America. Some start taking birth control before making the journey to avoid unwanted pregnancy.
What is unheard of, Malik said, was the timeline for the sisters’ release.
He said any undocumented person caught within 100 miles of the border does not have the right to an immigration attorney and is almost always deported soon after their arrest. If the detainees claim asylum, they would be sent to a camp to await an interview to determine whether they had credible fears for their life.
When asked about the sisters’ release, Salceda reiterated that, as far as the ACLU knows, they were detained for three days beginning July 11. They were given an order of supervision from an immigration court and took a bus from Texas to Fresno, reuniting with their mother July 17.