ACLU Files Lawsuit Against Homeland Security for Records Describing Abuse of Children

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Records Relate to Abuse and Mistreatment of Children in the Custody of U.S. Border Patrol

PHOENIX — American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in Arizona and San Diego, California, along with the law firm Cooley LLP, filed a lawsuit in federal court today against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for its failure to produce records related to the abuse and mistreatment of children in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its sub-agency, the U.S. Border Patrol.

DHS oversight bodies have ignored scores of administrative complaints documenting CBP’s mistreatment of children. For years, media accounts, human rights reports, and child advocates have described the same abuse and neglect of children in Border Patrol custody. On June 11, 2014, the ACLU and partner organizations submitted a complaint to DHS oversight agencies on behalf of 116 unaccompanied children alleging abuse and mistreatment in Border Patrol custody—including harsh temperatures, severe overcrowding, and denial of adequate hygiene supplies, bedding, food, water, and medical care.

In response, CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske acknowledged the children’s complaints of brutal detention conditions were “spot-on.” But on Oct. 6, 2014—less than four months after the DHS Inspector General’s Office first stated its intent to launch a full investigation—the office announced it would be “curtailing routine inspections.”

“There’s no better demonstration of the lack of DHS oversight than the agency’s failure to investigate the mistreatment of vulnerable children,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, border litigation staff attorney of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties . “As we’ve seen before, Border Patrol agents generally do not face disciplinary action for civil rights violations, and the agency refuses to reform its notorious detention system, where children—even infants—can still be held for days on end in horrific conditions.”

On Dec. 3, 2014, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU filed a request for DHS records pertaining to alleged or actual mistreatment of children in DHS custody, as well as DHS oversight agencies’ handling of those cases. DHS did not produce the requested documents.

Not only does the failure of DHS to produce the requested documents violate the Freedom of Information Act, it also impedes the ACLU’s efforts to educate the public on matters of pressing concern—namely, the mistreatment of children in Border Patrol custody.

The ACLU is also concerned that Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) officials and contractors have not consistently reported allegations involving Border Patrol, as required by federal child abuse reporting laws. ORR incident reports made public last year show that while shelter workers in Arizona and Texas generally reported abuse allegations to DHS, they did not always report those allegations to state child protection agencies.

Along with its lawsuit, the ACLU today filed accompanying state records requests with child protection agencies in Arizona and Texas, seeking records related to allegations of Border Patrol abuse.

“This case is about the systemic failure of multiple institutions to protect some of the most vulnerable among us,” said James Lyall, ACLU of Arizona staff attorney. “Under any reasonable definition, the neglect and mistreatment that these children experience in Border Patrol custody qualifies as child abuse, and federal officials and contractors are required to report that abuse under applicable child protection laws.”

Attorneys on the case include Victoria Lopez, Dan Pochoda and James Lyall of the ACLU of Arizona; David Loy and Mitra Ebadolahi of the San Diego ACLU; and Whitty Somvichian and Aarti Reddy of Cooley LLP.

Click here for a copy of the lawsuit, American Civil Liberties Foundation of Arizona, et al. v. Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, et al.

Click here for a copy of the records requests filed with child protection agencies in Arizona and Texas.