Immigration Law

More suits ahead after Honduran immigrant’s $125K settlement for mistreatment in border detention

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Photo by Benedek Alpar/

A group that helped represent a Honduran immigrant who received a $125,000 settlement for mistreatment in border detention facilities says the victory has led to plans for more lawsuits.

Suny Rodriguez Alvarado sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act for mistreatment of her son and herself. Her suit, filed in federal court in New Jersey, claimed that she and her son were “grossly mistreated” in detention, and she was subjected to coercive tactics to get them to abandon asylum claims.

The suit also claimed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not comply with the legal obligation established in the long-running Flores case (also known as Flores v. Reno and Flores v. Sessions) governing the release of minors in immigration custody.

A federal judge approved the settlement in February, according to this press release. One of the groups that represented Rodriguez, the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, said in a new press release that it is partnering with the International Refugee Assistance Project to sue on behalf of other immigrants who suffered abuses in detention and were separated from their families.

The government did not admit liability in the settlement agreement. Still, the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project says the case will be a blueprint for future cases against the government. Already, the ASAP has filed three more federal tort claims on behalf of separated families, according to the New Yorker, which covered Rodriguez’s legal claims and the reasons that she sought asylum.

The cases were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act because the federal government typically has sovereign immunity from private lawsuits, the New Yorker explains.

According to the New Yorker, Rodriguez said she first came to the United States illegally in 1998, but she obtained temporary protected status after a hurricane devastated much of Central America. While she was here, the father of Rodriguez’s children was murdered in Honduras. Her mother, also in Honduras, blamed police and sent a letter to a radio station, which was read on air, denouncing law enforcement. The mother and Rodriguez’s stepfather were both shot and killed.

Police said the two slayings were a murder suicide. Rodriguez didn’t believe it, so she returned home in 2006 and had the bodies exhumed. Rodriguez’s mother and stepfather had been killed with separate guns. Rodriguez began criticizing police corruption. Soon, she was facing threats from police officers. She told police to leave her alone in September 2014, and they responded by attacking her in front of her home, according to her lawsuit.

Rodriguez decided that it was unsafe, and she came to the United States with her boyfriend and their son, Daniel, in November 2014.

The boyfriend was separated from the family. Rodriguez and Daniel spent three days in cold, crowded cells in two facilities known as the ice house and the dog house, according to their suit. Daniel had pills and an inhaler for asthma, but he was given no treatment by CBP during his detention with Rodriquez.

Rodriguez and Daniel ended up at a family detention center in Dilley, Texas, where Rodriguez says she was constantly urged to give up her asylum claim. She was even awakened in the middle of the night with demands to sign the deportation forms. A lights-on policy and required health clinic visits at all hours also impeded sleep, the suit says.

Rodriguez organized to demand better conditions and sought the release of Daniel to an aunt in New Jersey. A judge ordered Daniel’s release in March 2015.

ICE did not act until the next month, when ICE told Rodriguez that her son was being taken to a shelter for unaccompanied minors, and he would be adopted by another family, Rodriguez says. The Flores decision, however, said family members should receive priority for custody over shelters, Rodriguez pointed out in her lawsuit.

When the boy refused to go, agents gave up and returned the boy to his mother. After that, Rodriguez said, she stopped her organizing efforts.

With help from a team of Yale law students, Rodriguez was granted relief from deportation in May 2015. Rodriguez then persuaded Yale law students to represent other women in detention. The students won all their cases, and they formed the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project after graduation.

Working with the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project on the federal tort case were the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School, serving as lead counsel; the Gibbons law firm; and Columbia Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic.

After her release from custody, Rodriguez moved to New Jersey. She works in order fulfillment for Rent the Runway and lives with her son, now 12. She told the New Yorker that her son fears being alone and is anxious whenever she leaves the house. She says she hopes the legal settlement will help him feel pride.

“I tell him, ‘Son, you can do anything you want to do,’ ” she told the New Yorker.

Updated June 21 at 12:40 p.m. to include information about the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project working with the Gibbons law firm, the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic.

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