Widespread Abuse by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Documented in National Wave of Complaints

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Contact: Matt Adams, Staff Attorney, NWIRP, 206-957-8611
Elizabeth Hawkins, 206-728-4220

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project files case on behalf of Burlington man
Seattle, WA – This week, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and an alliance of immigrant advocates joined forces in filing complaints targeting abuses by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) across the country.  Ten damages cases were filed yesterday alleging unlawful CBP conduct in northern and southern border states.
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and cooperating attorney Elizabeth Hawkins filed one of the cases on behalf of Gustavo Vargas, a resident of Burlington, Washington.  In June, 2011, Mr. Vargas was pulled over by a local police officer in Anacortes, Washington, for allegedly failing to use his turn signal. An artist, who had just been informed his work would be on display at the Anacortes Arts Festival, Vargas had a valid driver’s license, registration and insurance.
Nonetheless, he was soon unlawfully arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents and held in detention for more than two months. “I don’t know why the Border Patrol arrested me,” Vargas said. “I did nothing wrong. I don’t even know why there was a Border Patrol agent.  We were not anywhere near a border.”  U.S. Border Patrol agents fabricated a portion of the incident report in order to justify their actions, including claiming they were at the scene of the original traffic stop when the report from the Anacortes police officer clearly says they were not there.
The national effort to highlight CBP agents’ unlawful use of their enforcement authoritywas coordinated by NWIRP, the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. The cases filed this week demonstrate how CBP agents routinely overstep their statutory mandate by conducting enforcement activities outside border regions, making racially motivated arrests, employing derogatory and coercive interrogation tactics, and imprisoning arrestees underinhumane conditions.  The cases include claims for unlawful search and seizure, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, and battery.
“The widespread pattern of unlawful conduct by CBP should not be tolerated any longer,” said Jorge L. Barón, NWIRP’s executive director. “While these cases seek to address the abuses experienced by individual community members, we hope that they also lead to forceful action by the President and Secretary Napolitano to stop this type of illegal activity in the future.”
Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project added “the cases filed this week are especially relevant in light of the call of many in Congress for further expansion of the numbers of Border Patrol agents.”
Vargas is not alone. Among the cases filed this week:
  • CBP agents detained five women in Texas in a freezing cold cell called the “hielera,” oricebox. The temperature in the hielera was so cold that the women’s fingers and lips turned blue. CBP held the women for up to six days in dire conditions with no beds, chairs, blankets, or toiletries, no access to bathing facilities, and only a single sandwich each day. CBP agents threatened to keep the women in the hielera if they did not sign specific documents.  The women signed the documents to escape the hielera, only to learn that they had agreed to expedite their own deportation as the forms were not in their language and had not been translated for them.
  • CBP agents forced a 63-year-old woman off a Greyhound bus in Ohio, subjected her to hours of interrogation, and refused to let her use the bathroom for so long that she urinated on herself.  After being detained all night in her urine-soaked jeans, CBP transferred her to an immigration detention facility, where she suffered an acute stroke.  As a result of this trauma, she suffers from chronic pain, numbness, and partial paralysis on her left side.
  • CBP agents in Washington D.C. unlawfully detained a four-year-old U.S. citizen for more than twenty hours without adequate food and water, deprived her of any contact with her parents, and sent her back to Guatemala, informing the child’s father that they could not return her to “illegals.”
“These cases exemplify the culture of impunity that has taken hold at CBP,” according to Melissa Crow, director of the American Immigration Council’s Legal Action Center.  “The agency must take immediate steps to promote more effective oversight and accountability within its ranks.”
Trina Realmuto, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild noted, “While these cases shed light on CBP misconduct, there are hundreds more such incidents that go unreported.”