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Death and Abuse at the Southwest Border

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July 28, 2014

As Congress debates how to respond to children’s migration from Central America, we must not forget that Customs and Border Protection is in dire need of improved oversight and accountability. Here are three examples of how the system is failing and what the ACLU is doing to help:

  1. Sergio, 15, was fatally shot in the face by a Border Patrol agent because he was allegedly throwing rocks at the agent across the border. His family sued the U.S. government, denying that Sergio threw anything, but the district court held that because Sergio was a noncitizen on the Mexican side of the border when he was killed he had no constitutional rights.

    Sergio’s family appealed the district court decision, and the ACLU and its border affiliates filed an amicus brief. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Constitution can apply outside the territorial limits of the United States in the circumstances that led to Sergio’s death, squarely rejecting the government’s argument that constitutional rights end at the border.

    To see ACLU’s recommendations on CBP use of force, click here.

  2. Jane*, 54, was stopped while returning to the United States from Mexico. She was frisked and strip searched by CBP. When they were unable to find contraband, CBP handcuffed and transported Jane to the University Medical Center of El Paso. For six hours, Jane was subjected to an observed bowel movement, X-ray, speculum exam, rectal exam, vaginal exam, and a CT scan. She was released without charge, but was acutely emotionally and mentally traumatized from the painful cavity searches she was forced to endure.

    Jane, represented by the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU of New Mexico, sued the El Paso hospital as well as CBP personnel. The hospital settled the lawsuit for $1.1 million and agreed to change its policies to prevent any future abusive searches. The claims against CBP personnel, however, are still pending in federal court.

  3. Felipe*, 10, fled from El Salvador to the United States after watching the murder of his father, who was targeted because he ran a rehabilitation center for individuals attempting to leave gangs. Felipe is set to stand alone and represent himself before an immigration judge at a hearing scheduled for this September. While Felipe has a case for asylum, he will be forced to face a trained prosecutor alone and is statistically far more likely to lose his case without an attorney to present his side of the case.

    On behalf of Felipe and children like him, the ACLU and allies recently filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit challenging the federal government’s failure to provide them with legal representation in deportation hearings.

    To sign a petition calling for President Obama to provide legal counsel to all children facing deportation, click here.

While these results are all steps in the right direction, there is more work to be done in each of these cases. And, ultimately, litigation is only one facet of oversight and accountability. New leadership at DHS and CBP must follow through on reforms to address each of these failures.

* Pseudonym to protect identity and privacy of the individual

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