Two Rochester sisters who fled Honduras as teenagers and were later arrested crossing the U.S. border on foot have been awarded $80,000 to settle a lawsuit, that alleged they were detained in a cage along with other mistreatment, against the federal government.
The settlement, approved Thursday by U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel, calls for the sisters, ages 19 and 17, to split the money evenly. It also allows U.S. officials to maintain no wrongdoing in how Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel treated the young women.
"We hope that the lawsuit and sharing our story changes how the government treats children who are coming to America," older sister Kerlin Sanchez Villalobos said in remarks released by the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the plaintiffs. "I don't want any other kid to be treated the way we were."
The federal attorney representing the government did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment. In April, the CBP denied the sisters' allegations.
Sanchez Villalobos and her sister, identified in court documents as Y.S. because she is still a minor, left home in 2019 to seek asylum and reunite with their mother, Daysi Villalobos Izagguire, in Minnesota. The sisters, ages 16 and 14 at the time, were arrested while crossing the border on foot and taken to a CBP site in Clint, Texas.
That same month, the Associated Press reported that immigration attorneys had determined that hundreds of children had been locked up there with inadequate food, water and sanitation. A New York Times article dubbed the Clint location "the public face of the chaos on America's southern border."
The ACLU branches in Minnesota and Texas, in announcing the settlement, said the detained sisters endured physical assault, shortages of food and water, and necessities such as access to showers, clean clothes and proper bedding. The suit also claimed that officers discarded the younger sister's medication to treat a leg and hip injury.
The sisters were also forced "to compete for food" and made to care for younger children, Thursday's statement continued.
"Just being locked away, it's awful," Sanchez Villalobos said after the settlement was announced. "Children are crying, it was horrible." She said that "officers told us to shut the crying kids up. Us older kids, we would just try to console them and talk to them. What I would do is braid their hair."
The sisters said they spent nine days in a cage, were permitted to shower just once and often were hungry and cold. Guards limited their access to a phone.
Sanchez Villalobos said one officer kicked her in the back and ankle while she was sitting in a line with other detainees. She had to wear a walking boot as a result, she said.
Later, the lawsuit said, the girls were split up after being taken to group homes near Brownsville, Texas.
Sanchez Villalobos spent 20 days in detention, and Y.S. spent 29 days. When finally reunited with their mother in Rochester, Sanchez Villalobos said that "she cried and … felt very bad for all we had gone through."
Both girls are attending high school in Rochester and working. After high school, Sanchez Villalobos intends to continue her education, while her sister wants to be a veterinarian or a nurse.
"Children who are alone at the border are already terrified and vulnerable," said Teresa Nelson, the ACLU's director in Minnesota. "Having Customs and Border Protection agents deny medical care, physically abuse them and make children compete for food is an inhumane and inexcusable violation of these children's rights."
Nelson added that she hopes the settlement "helps hold CBP accountable for its long history of detaining children in substandard conditions."
Staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this report.