The case, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, is believed to be one of the first sexual assault cases Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has settled with a minor. The organization declined to comment on the case or any disciplinary action taken against the officer involved.
ACLU attorney Angélica Salceda said the case stood out for the young complainant’s willingness to participate in years of legal proceedings.
“It’s [a settlement] that hopefully allows other people who have been victims of abuse at the border to know that border patrol can’t get away with these types of abuses, that there are people out there watching and ready to take action,” she told The Daily Beast.
The suit alleges that the minor and her older sister, whose names have been withheld, were apprehended by CBP officers at the border in July 2016. The girls say they were traveling from Guatemala to meet their mother, who has lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.
The officers allegedly brought the girls to a CBP station in Presidio, Texas, where they were placed in a holding cell. From there, the suit claims an officer led them one at a time into a closet-like room. He allegedly forced them to undress—taking off multiple layers of clothing—and groped their breasts and genitals.
The older sister described the alleged incident in a 2017 blog post, writing that her sister emerged from the room “the same way as I had: crying and terrified.”
“I have suffered every day from this experience that it has been extremely hard to sleep at night,” she wrote. “There have even been some days when I feel like I shouldn’t be alive.”
The lawsuit claims the officer told the girls he was looking for weapons. A Homeland Security policy memo from 2014 states that opposite-gender strip searches should not be conducted except in “exigent circumstances,” or when performed by medical practitioners. The memo also states that staff should not conduct “visual body cavity” searches of on a minor.
The girls reported the alleged abuse to other officers shortly afterward, and provided sworn statements for the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s investigation. But when the results of that investigation were not made public, Salceda said, the younger sister decided to move forward with a lawsuit.
The case was settled in October 2018, but the $125,000 payment was delayed until this month due to the recent government shutdown.
The case is hardly the first report of sexual misconduct by U.S. immigration officials. In 2015, CBS News found 35 sexual misconduct claims were filed against Border Patrol agents in the three years before. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General received more than 1,200 complaints of sexual abuse against detainees between 2010 and 2017, according to The Intercept.
Salceda said the younger sister, who has been reunited with her mother and is now attending community college in California, wanted to prevent similar abuses from happening to other minors crossing the border.
“She’s certainly happy that everything came to light; that there's been an opportunity to come forward with her story and share what happened to her,” Salceda said.
“Her hope is that this individual officer is no longer in his position; that the government has taken some sort of action to ensure that other immigrants—especially children—are protected from these types of abuses that tend to happen at the border.”