March 14, 2013: An alliance of immigrant advocacy groups has filed numerous cases of abuse and racial profiling in Ohio and other states involving Latino victims—including a situation in Toledo where a woman suspected of being an undocumented immigrant was pulled from a Greyhound bus for questioning and ended up in the hospital after suffering a stroke while in detention.
The target of the civil lawsuits and complaints is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, accusing its agents of failing to follow proper protocol, and in some cases, abusing their authority. The alliance of immigration groups, private attorneys and a law school clinic hopes to not only seek redress for individual grievances, but influence the current immigration reform debate on Capitol Hill by pointing out such incidents.
Ten lawsuits were filed in Ohio, New York, Texas, and Washington. In each case, the four organizations that make up the alliance allege a CBP agent abused his authority and broke the law, rather than uphold laws they were sworn to uphold and protect.
“By filing and publicizing these cases, we hope to shed light on the misconduct and abuse that regularly occurs in states along both the northern and southern borders and to promote accountability for government abuse,” said Trina Realmuto, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, during a telephone news conference.
“There are scores of similar incidences of abuse that go unreported,” said Ms. Realmuto. “These cases highlight cases such as racially-motivated arrests, threats, battery, and defamation of humane detention facilities. However, a significant number of CBP abuses go unreported—often due to fear of retribution or the potential adverse impact that speaking up could have on a person’s immigration case or a person may not know their rights or the lack of legal representation.”
“By filing these cases, we are trying to send a message to CBP that they are not above the law,” said Ms. Realmuto.
One of the more egregious allegations is a federal administrative complaint against CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) filed on behalf of 63-year old Elizabeth Takem-aishetu, a New York resident with no criminal history. She works as a home health aide to a 96-year old disabled widow. Her attorneys described her as “a devout Christian who pays her taxes regularly.”
According to the complaint, Ms. Takem-aishetu was returning home from a cousin’s funeral in Minnesota when her Greyhound bus made a routine stop in Toledo.
“An armed CBP agent boarded the bus, approached her, and without any basis for believing that she was a non-citizen or any explanation, loudly demanded to know her immigration status,” said Jackie Pearce, a legal student at the Immigration Justice Clinic, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. “She was fearful and told him she was not a U.S. citizen. The agent then made her get off the bus, took her belongings, and refused her request to make a phone call to her pastor.”
Her lawyers claim Ms. Takem-aishetu was arrested and placed in a CBP vehicle where she was forced to wait for eight hours without food and water. When she asked to use the bathroom, an agent escorted her at gunpoint and waited outside the open door.
The complaint stated that Ms. Takem-aishetu finally was taken to the Sandusky Bay Processing Center close to midnight, where she spent an additional several hours in questioning and processing, her leg shackled to a bench. She was placed in a small cell with room only to sit. After repeatedly asking agents to use the bathroom, Ms. Takem-aishetu could wait no longer and urinated on herself. She was forced to sit all night in her urine-soaked jeans until being transferred to immigration detention at the county jail the next morning.
Attorneys contend Ms. Takem-aishetu feared threats to deport her, knowing that she would be abandoning her 96-year-old employer without care and her orphaned grandson without any financial support. Suffering from stress and fear, Ms. Takem-aishetu fell ill while at the jail with nausea, dizziness, and weakness in the left side of her body. At the hospital, doctors determined that she had suffered an acute stroke.
“Her hand started convulsing and she dropped the Bible she was reading,” said Ms. Pearce. “She began vomiting and lost consciousness.”
According to the complaint, Ms. Takem-aishetu never had any health problems before her detention. Her primary care physician determined that she did not exhibit any of the risk factors for a stroke, and that it was directly connected to the stress of her detention and treatment. Ms. Takem-aishetu continues to suffer from lasting effects of the stroke, with near-constant pain, numbness, and partial paralysis on her left side. She relies on a cane to walk, and her speech is impaired. She is seeking damages for her alleged mistreatment.
“Ms. Takem-aishetu was detained for a total of ten days before ICE released her on her own recognizance because they could not provide the care she needed and the doctors had mandated,” said Ms. Pearce. “A previously health woman with no medical problems, she continues to suffer from the physical effects of the stroke.”
The other suits allege that CBP agents “routinely disregard basic constitutional protections and the human rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens,” as well as overstepping the boundaries of their authority.
“Whether someone is a citizen or a non-citizen, they are still entitled to certain fundamental rights. I think this relates to a lack of accountability and oversight,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He accused Border Patrol agents of routinely pulling over cars well away from any border crossings “in order to justify their expanded numbers.”
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), and the Immigrant Worker Project (IWP) filed a similar class action complaint in 2009 against the U.S. Border Patrol and several small, local law enforcement agencies in Northwest Ohio alleging racial profiling. The suit challenged the Border Patrol and local agencies’ practice of restraining and interrogating Latinos about their immigration status based solely on their Hispanic appearance.
The suit argued that the practice violates the 4th Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures and the 5th Amendment’s guarantee of due process and equal protection of the law.
“I think it is imperative that we not only address this issue, but tell them to quit it,” Baldemar Velásquez, FLOC founder and President said at the time. “Stop spreading fear in the Latino community and start doing the serious police work.”
The lawsuit stated that racial profiling in NW Ohio and SE Michigan worsened after the Border Patrol’s budget increased and new offices opened along the border with Canada, affecting Michigan and Ohio residents. FLOC argued that the Border Patrol may have had difficulty justifying the increased budget and has subsequently tried to create numbers by going after farmworkers and other Latinos in the area.
Among the allegations in other cases filed across the country are:
- Emily Ruiz, a four-year-old who was sent to Guatemala after her flight to Kennedy Airport was diverted to Dulles. The girl was traveling with her grandfather, who was denied entry because of an immigration infraction two decades earlier. The girl's parents, who are illegal immigrants, opted to have their daughter returned to Guatemala rather than pick her up, possibly because they were concerned they would confront questions about their own residency status. Attorneys said the parents weren't given the chance to reunite with their daughter and it took five months for the girl to return to her home in New York.
- Lucy Rogers, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who works with farmworkers in New York, said Border Patrol agents pulled her over in late 2011 without reasonable suspicion, only saying he was conducting a “citizenship checkup.” The two farmworkers traveling with her couldn't provide ID, so the agent took all three into custody. She was arrested on suspicion of trafficking people, questioned and held for several hours at the station. She alleges her car navigation device was seized for seven months.
- Four complaints filed on behalf of illegal immigrants who were detained in Texas holding cells. They allege the cells are kept at cold temperatures, didn't have enough beds or bathrooms, and aren't sometimes given cups to drink tap water. They allege some of the immigrants were in the holding cells for as long as six days.
A CBP spokeswoman issued an email statement stating that “CBP does not comment on pending litigation. CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of its mission. We do not tolerate misconduct or abuse within our ranks and we fully cooperate with all investigations of alleged unlawful conduct, on or off duty, by any of our CBP employees and contractors.”
The alliance who filed the complaints and lawsuits expressed concern that the current immigration reform debate would provide mechanisms to put a stop to the abuses alleged in those court actions.
“While border security is certainly important, enforcement cannot come at the expense of civil rights,” said Melissa Crow, director of the Legal Action Center, American Immigration Council.
“Lawmakers must think carefully about CBP is using its resources, whether additional resources are really needed, and how they should be channeled. The upcoming immigration reform debate has to be more than about meeting benchmarks. They also must include how CBP will hold its officers accountable for their conduct and prevent them from using unlawful tactics in the future. We hope that the outrageous facts in the ten new cases that have been filed put a human face on the problems,” she added.
“We hope, on a more global scale, that Congress will begin to implement guidelines and restrictions that will preclude the types of activity that go beyond the mission of protecting its borders,” said Adams.
The four groups that make up the legal alliance include: the American Immigration Council, the Seattle-based Northwest Immigration Rights Project, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego/Imperial County. The Latino plaintiffs in the cases filed are represented by private attorneys, legal aid clinics, and law students across the country.