Two sisters who fled Honduras as teenagers in 2019 are now suing the federal government in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, alleging they were mistreated while detained in a cage and at other sites along the southern border of the United States.
Kerlin Sanchez Villalobos, 18, and her younger sister, identified in court documents as Y.S. because she is still a minor at 16, left home to seek asylum and reunite with their mother in Minnesota.
"We wanted to put this lawsuit forward because we thought what happened to us was unjust, and we don't want this to happen to anyone else," said Sanchez Villalobos, who is now living with her mom and sister in Rochester.
The sisters, now a junior and senior in high school, were arrested while crossing the U.S. border on foot and taken to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) site in Clint, Texas, in June 2019.
That same month, the Associated Press reported that immigration attorneys had determined that hundreds of children there had been locked up "without adequate food, water and sanitation."
A flurry of news reports followed about inhumane conditions for migrant children at the Clint station, including a New York Times article dubbing it "the public face of the chaos on America's southern border."
The lawsuit has been brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, along with the ACLU of Texas and the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney. It seeks unspecified damages and a finding that the government committed negligence, assault and battery. The plaintiffs argue that the United States has a legal obligation to act in the best interests of unaccompanied children in custody.
The CBP denied the sisters' administrative complaint in April, and a spokesperson said in an e-mail that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The suit claims that officers tossed out the younger sister's medication to treat a leg and hip injury, and Sanchez Villalobos became frightened that they would be mistreated after seeing guards rough up a young man.
The sisters said they spent nine days in a cage, were only permitted to shower once and often were hungry and cold. Guards limited their access to the phone. Sanchez Villalobos said an officer kicked her in the back and ankle while she was sitting down in a line with other detainees. She had to wear a walking boot as a result, she said, and still wears a walking cast when her ankle swells. Later, the lawsuit said, the girls were separated after being taken to group homes near Brownsville, Texas.
"It wasn't easy and thank God we're OK, but we often remember … all the bad things, the sadness, the times we cried," Sanchez Villalobos said.
She spent 20 days in detention, and Y.S. spent 29 days. When they were reunited with their mother in Rochester, Sanchez Villalobos said, "she cried and … she felt very bad for all we had gone through."