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Lawsuit claims CBP officer sexually molested Guatemalan woman and 17-year-old sister

A woman from Guatemala has accused an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection of sexually assaulting her, and her 17-year-old sister, at a holding facility in southwestern Texas last July. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, where the two girls now reside with their mother, launched a lawsuit against CBP on their behalf. The claims were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows individuals to sue the federal government and seek monetary damages, the ACLU said. 

The lawsuit is seeking $750,000 in compensation for each sister, who remain unidentified because they fear retaliation for their claims, the ACLU said. The elder sister was identified only as Clarita, a pseudonym. 

Determined to escape violence and poverty in Guatemala, Clarita, 19, and her 17-year-old sister, took the harsh and dangerous journey north, traveling by bus through Mexico to the U.S. border near the Texas town of Presidio, about 195 miles southeast of El Paso. 

"By the time we made it to the U.S. border, we were so excited," wrote Clarita in an essay published by the ACLU. "We had made it to the land of opportunities, the country where human rights were protected. We understood arrest and deportation were a possibility, but — for the first time in many years — we felt confident that no one would hurt us." 

On July 11, the two girls managed to get across the border, but soon became lost. They managed to flag down federal agents with Customs and Border Protection, who took them into custody and brought them to a nearby station where they were placed in a holding cell and left with one officer. 

The officer came for Clarita, and brought her to a small room, like a closet or pantry, where prepackaged food was stored. There, she said through a translator, the CBP official forced her to remove her clothing. 

"He told me to take off my sweater for security reasons," she said. "Then my shirt, and again, I asked why?" She shook her bra as she was ordered and then, she said, he "moved my bra straps up and started caressing my breasts." 

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Then, according to the complaint, he pulled down her leggings to her knees. While she was "bare naked" the official "began to touch my intimate parts," she said. 

The whole incident took about 5 to 7 minutes, according to the account.

The official then told Clarita to dress herself, and then brought her back to her cell. He then took her 17-year-old sister, and did the same to her, Clarita said.

"I went to the cell where my little sister was. I never thought he would do the same to my sister. I thought he did it to me because I was an adult," she said. 

"Later, my sister came back to the cell, and I asked her what the man had done, but she did not reply, she just looked down at the floor," Clarita said.

Back together, the two girls began to cry and the officer tried to get them to stop by offering chocolates, potato chips, and aluminum foil survival blanket. 

A spokesman from CBP said that the agency "cannot comment on pending litigation." 

"However, we take allegations of misconduct seriously and there is no room in CBP for the mistreatment or misconduct of any kind toward those in our custody," said Douglas T. Mosier, a CBP spokesman. "We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigation of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty," he said. 

"This case is unfortunately representative of a pattern with Customs and Border Protection of significant abuse against children, including significant sexual abuse who encounter federal immigration authorities at or near our borders," said Mitra Ebadolahi, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Border Litigation Project in San Diego. "We've been tracking these kinds of incidents for years," she said. 

In February 2015, the ACLU and a law firm in San Diego filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security and CBP arguing that federal officials failed to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to alleged or actual mistreatment of children in holding facilities in Arizona and Texas. 

This lawsuit is still ongoing, but stemmed from complaints the year before, made on behalf of 116 children that alleged Border Patrol agents kept them in stress positions, denied food and water, held back medical care, and subjected the minors to physical, mental and sexual abuse. 

"Instead of being helped, these children were abused, and the federal government has not taken the steps to discipline egregious abuse. Unaccompanied children continue to present themselves to federal officials and we continue to receive repots that these children are abused, insulted, and harassed," Ebadolahi said. 

Ebadolahi said that CBP, which has around 44,000 agents and officers is the largest law enforcement agency in the nation, and yet it lacks oversight, and remains unaccountable she said. 

"CBP appears to be ignoring binding federal law – and Congress and other federal agencies, including the FBI, are letting them do so, despite clear guidance to the contrary," she said.  

Despite guidance written by the Department of Justice that the 1990 Victims of Child Abuse Act includes immigrant children, "top-level CBP officials have told ACLU staff attorneys that CBP does not believe it is subject to the VCAA," Ebadolahi said. 

In May 2016, an integrity advisory panel with the Homeland Security Council, called CBP's  discipline system "broken," adding that the "length of time from receiving an allegation of misconduct to imposing final discipline is far too long."

"This undermines the deterrence goals of discipline. And, it is a disservice to those CBP employees who are left in limbo under the cloud of misconduct allegations that are later disproven or do not warrant disciplinary action," the panel said. 

CBP's discipline process remains byzantine, in part because it involves several different offices of CBP with "different and overlapping responsibilities," the panel said. 

The year before, the panel had recommended that CBP more than double the number of investigators, increasing the number of agents in CBP's Office of Internal Affairs from 218 to 550 agents. 

Clarita and her sister reported the incident to another immigration officer in the office, and soon "an investigator" with Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General launched an investigation. The sisters were interviewed twice and asked to draw a map of the space where they said the incident happened.

However, Ebadolahi said that as far as she could tell, the agency's investigation was "perfunctory." 

Her colleague, Angélica Salceda agreed, writing that "There has been no criminal prosecution against the officer involved." 

After three days, the sisters were released under an order of supervision and allowed to travel to their mother in Fresno, California. Both girls have immigration attorneys and are evaluating their options for different forms of relief under U.S. immigration law, said Salceda.

"I was so scared and confused — I couldn’t understand why he was doing this," wrote Clarita. "It clearly wasn’t necessary for security purposes. Now that I look back, I feel so stupid that I let it happen. And I now realize it was all for his own enjoyment." 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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