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CBP Abuse of Authority

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents across the country routinely disregard basic constitutional protections and the human rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens. Along both the northern and southern borders, CBP agents routinely overstep the boundaries of their authority by conducting enforcement activities outside border regions, making racially motivated arrests, employing derogatory and coercive interrogation tactics, and imprisoning arrestees under inhumane conditions.

In an effort to promote greater accountability by CBP on this issue, the Legal Action Center of the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties are coordinating a national litigation effort.  Through this effort, during the week prior to March 12, 2012, attorneys in states along both the northern and southern borders filed individual complaints for damages on behalf of ten individuals who had suffered abuse at the hands of CBP agents.  These complaints highlight the breadth of the problem and the culture of impunity that has taken hold within the agency.

Click here to view the press release or here to listen to a tele-briefing on the cases from March 13, 2013.



Recently filed cases against CBP

1-3. Florida/Texas

Administrative Complaints against United States
Filing date:  3/12/13

Counsel: Joseph Anderson & Losmin Jimenez
                  Americans for Immigrant Justice

Contact: Joseph Anderson l 786-454-8564 l

In January and February 2013, three women (“Complainants”) were apprehended at the United States Texas border by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agents. After being apprehended, they were taken by CBP to what the CBP agents called the “hielera,” which is Spanish for the “icebox” or “icemaker.” The hielera was a freezing holding cell where dozens of detainees were crowded together. The hielera had no beds, no chairs and a single toilet and sink sitting in the open in the corner. The Complainants were kept in the hielera for as many as six days.

The hielera was so cold that the Complainants’ fingers and lips turned blue. The Complainants were often fed only one meal a day consisting of a single sandwich, which was frequently frozen. They received nothing to drink other than the water they had to retrieve from the sink, using their hands or a single cup shared by everyone in the hielera. They were not given blankets or pillows. Sleeping on the freezing cold floor was next to impossible and the Complainants obtained little sleep while in the hielera. Pregnant women and women with children were also placed in the hielera.

They were not given access to a shower or a bath.  Two of the Complainants had their menstrual cycles while in the hielera but had no access to a bathroom for bathing.  There was no soap, no change of underwear, and no toothbrushes or toothpaste.

CBP agents regularly asked the Complainants to sign documents printed in English which the women could not read and did not understand. CBP agents threatened that they would be kept in the hielera until they signed these documents.  CBP agents also referred to them in demeaning ways, including calling them “bitches.”  Only one of the women was asked whether she had a fear of returning to her country of origin, though several do. Eventually, most of the Complainants signed the documents in order to end their suffering in the hieleras. Though they did not know it, what they signed were orders for their expedited removal. The Complainants were subsequently transferred to a Texas jail and then to a detention facility in Florida while awaiting removal.  All have now filed administrative complaints for damages against the United States for the suffering they endured at the hands of CBP agents.

Complaint 1
Complaint 2
Complaint 3

4. Florida/Texas

Administrative Complaints against United States
Filing date:  3/12/13

Counsel: Joseph Anderson & Losmin Jimenez
                  Americans for Immigrant Justice

Contact: Joseph Anderson l 786-454-8564 l

Jose Alberto* was apprehended at the United States Texas border by Custom and Border Protection and was told by a CBP agent that he was being taken to a “hielera.” Mr. Alberto was placed in a small, freezing cold cell with approximately thirty men. The temperature was so cold that Mr. Alberto’s lips split and his face became red and felt sunburned. The cell had no beds or chairs, and had a single toilet, a sink, and two urinals out in the open. The cold made it difficult to sleep, and the size of the cell made it impossible for all of the men in the cell to lie down at the same time. The only water provided to the men was in a single thermos, shared by all. The water smelled like bleach and burned Mr. Alberto’s throat when he drank it. Mr. Alberto was held in one “hielera” for one day and night, and was transferred to a second similar “hielera” at another location, where he spent another day before he was ultimately transported to Broward Transitional Center in Florida.

While in the hielera, Mr. Alberto was called out of the cell to speak with a CBP agent. After answering some questions about his family, Mr. Alberto was told he had to sign some documents printed in English, which Mr. Alberto does not speak or read. He repeatedly refused to sign the documents and repeatedly asked what the documents said. The CBP agent ultimately told Mr. Alberto they were for his “deportation.” Mr. Alberto refused to sign the documents, saying he was afraid to go back to his country because he would be killed by a gang. The CBP agent told Mr. Alberto that he would send him to federal prison if he did not sign. Mr. Alberto became upset and began crying, and the CBP agent laughed and mocked him. After he continued to refuse to sign the documents, Mr. Alberto was taken back to the hielera, and was told he would be sent to federal prison.

*Not his actual name.

5. Ohio

Administrative Complaints against United States
Filing date:  3/12/13

Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic
                  Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School

Contact: Zsuzsanna Toth l 212-790-0411 l
                  Betsy Ginsberg l 347-683-2387 l 

Ms. Takem-aishetu is a 63-year-old woman who has lived in New York for eight years.  She works as the primary caregiver of a 96-year-old disabled widow, supports her orphaned grandson, and always pays her taxes.  She is a devout religious woman who has no criminal record. In March 2011, Ms. Takem-aishetu was returning home from a cousin’s funeral in Minnesota when her bus made a routine stop in Toledo, Ohio.  There, a CBP agent boarded the parked bus, a gun visible in his holster, and questioned Ms. Takem-aishetu about her immigration status. Ms. Takem-aishetu was arrested and placed in a CBP vehicle where she was forced to wait for eight hours without food and water.  When she asked to use the bathroom, an agent escorted her at gunpoint and waited outside the open door. 

Ms. Takem-aishetu finally was taken to the Sandusky Bay Processing Center close to midnight, where she spent another several hours in questioning and processing, her leg shackled to a bench. Eventually, she was placed in a small cell with room only to sit.  After repeatedly asking agents to use the bathroom, Ms. Takem-aishetu could wait no longer and urinated on herself.  She was forced to sit all night in her urine-soaked jeans until being transferred to immigration detention at the county jail the next morning.

Ms. Takem-aishetu was extremely embarrassed about her treatment by CBP and ICE agents. She feared their threats to deport her, knowing that she would be abandoning her 96-year-old employer without care and her orphaned grandson without any financial support.  Suffering from intense stress and fear, Ms. Takem-aishetu fell ill while at the jail with nausea, dizziness, and weakness in the left side of her body.  At the hospital, doctors determined that she had suffered an acute stroke.

Ms. Takem-aishetu never had any health problems before her detention.  After an extensive medical workup, her primary care physician determined that she did not exhibit any of the risk factors for a stroke, and that it was directly connected to the tremendous stress of her detention and treatment.  Ms. Takem-aishetu continues to suffer from the lasting effects of the stroke, with near-constant pain, numbness, and partial paralysis on the left side of her body.  She relies on a cane to walk, and her speech is impaired; these changes have severely affected her way of life. Ms. Takem-aishetu seeks damages for her mistreatment.


6. New York

District Court for the Eastern District of New York
Filing date:  3/8/13

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, LLP
                 American Immigration Council

Contact: Melissa Crow l American Immigration Council l 202-507-7523 l

On March 11, 2011, E.R., a four-year-old U.S. citizen, was detained by Customs and Border Protection following her arrival at Dulles Airport. E.R. was returning home to New York from a vacation in Guatemala with her grandfather, when her flight was diverted from JFK to Dulles airport due to bad weather. While E.R. was admitted with her U.S. passport, her grandfather was directed to secondary inspection due to an issue with his immigration paperwork. CBP detained E.R. with her grandfather for the next 20 plus hours, gave her only a cookie and soda during the entire time, and provided her nowhere to nap other than the cold floor.     

Although CBP agents had the phone number of E.R’s parents, they failed to contact them for nearly 14 hours, and repeatedly refused her grandfather’s requests to be allowed to call them. E.R.’s father was frantic with worry this entire time. When CBP eventually did contact E.R.’s father, the agent promised to send E.R. to JFK as soon as arrangements could be made to do so, but also asked for identifying information about her parents. Hours later, CBP called again, and this time claimed that CBP could not return E.R. to “illegals.” The CBP agent gave E.R.’s father an hour to decide whether she should be sent back to Guatemala or to an “adoption center” in Virginia.  Fearing that he would otherwise lose custody of his daughter, E.R.’s father decided that the only viable option was for her to return to Guatemala. CBP agents put E.R. and her grandfather on the next flight to Guatemala.

E.R. was finally able to return home nearly three weeks later, after her father hired a local attorney to fly to Guatemala to retrieve her. Back in the United States, E.R. was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder by a child psychologist, who concluded that the PTSD was a result of her detention, her separation from her parents, and her perception that she had been deported because her father did not pick her up from the airport. E.R.’s father seeks damages on her behalf for her unlawful treatment.

7. New York

Administrative Complaint against United States
Filing date:  3/12/13

Counsel: New York Civil Liberties Union
                  Rebecca Engel l

                  Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic, Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School                                         Betsy Ginsberg l

Contact: NYCLU Press Office l 212-607-3372 

Lucy Rogers is a naturalized American citizen of Mexican descent. She lives in Chateauguay, NY with her husband and infant son. In her work as a medical interpreter for immigrant farmworkers, a program funded by the federal government, Ms. Rogers travels to New York farms to pick up farmworkers, drive them to medical appointments, and to serve as a translator. 

On December 28, 2011, Ms. Rogers was driving toward the U.S./Canada border with two farmworkers of apparent Latino descent when a Border Patrol agent pulled her over without any reasonable suspicion.  The agent told Ms. Rogers that he was conducting a “citizenship checkup” and asked her and her passengers whether they were U.S. citizens. Ms. Rogers replied that she was a U.S. citizen and provided the agent with her New York State drivers’ license. Because the two farmworkers traveling her were unable to immediately provide proof of their immigration status, Ms. Rogers was arrested and searched, under the suspicion that she was trafficking undocumented immigrants in an attempt to escape inspection upon entry into the U.S..

After several hours of being interrogated in a nearby station, CBP employees agreed that there was no proof that Ms. Rogers was engaged in trafficking.  Yet, the CBP agents insisted that Ms. Rogers provide them with the GPS device that she kept in her car.  She understood that, if she refused to do so, she would remain indefinitely in CBP custody.  Consequently, she felt compelled to give it to them.  Ms. Rogers did not receive it back for more than seven months.   Now, after this frightening and humiliating experience, Ms. Rogers feels afraid that living near the border means that she could be stopped at any time without any reason— simply because of her race and ethnicity.


8. Texas

Administrative Complaint against United States
Filing date:  3/12/13

Counsel: ACLU of Texas

                 Stapleton & Stapleton Lawyers

Contact: Dione Friends l 713-942-8146 x 110 l 832-291-4816 (c) l

Ms. Laura Mireles is a United States citizen who was forcibly thrown to the ground, injured, and arrested by a CBP agent without any justification.  Ms. Mireles is small in stature, approximately 5’1” tall and 100 pounds, and has a visible malformation of her hands and feet.  Ms. Mireles has worked at a store on the U.S. side of an international bridge in Brownsville, near the CBP inspection station, since 2005.  On November 5, 2012, Ms. Mireles crossed to the Mexican side of the bridge for roughly 15 minutes to pick up keys to lock the store.

After she closed the store, a CBP agent stopped Ms. Mireles and searched her car. Ms. Mireles did not interfere with the search and no illegal items were found.  The agent became agitated and reacted violently when Ms. Mireles asked him about his search of her handbag. The agent grabbed her with both hands and threw her onto the ground with such force that her jeans ripped open at the knee and she suffered a large knee wound as well as several cuts and abrasions on her elbows.  The agent put his full weight on her small frame and handcuffed her so tightly that the fire department later had to be summoned to cut the handcuffs from her wrists.  Ms. Mireles, who was understandably confused, scared and crying, asked the agent to explain what was happening.  He responded by threatening to hit her if she didn’t shut up.  After being treated by paramedics for her injuries, Ms. Mireles was released from custody without being charged with an offense.

9. Texas

District Court for the Northern District of Texas
Filing date:  3/12/13

Counsel: David Armendáriz
                 De Mott, McChesney, Curtright & Armendáriz, LLP l 210-534-1844 l

On the morning of January 31, 2012, Francisco Jaimes-Villegas was driving with two of his Hispanic coworkers on Highway 84 outside Santa Anna, Texas, when he was pulled over by two CBP agents using their emergency lights. Mr. Jaimes-Villegas was driving an unaltered, uncovered pick up truck, with a tool box and a generator in the truck bed, and was obeying all relevant traffic laws when he was stopped. When the two CBP agents approached, one on each side of the truck, one agent immediately handcuffed Mr. Jaimes-Villegas to the person sitting in the rear, and the other agent handcuffed the person sitting in the passenger seat to himself, before asking them any questions. The agents then interrogated the handcuffed men as to whether they had any “papers,” after which they pulled the three men out of the truck and put them in the back seat of their own car. Mr. Jaimes-Villegas and his co-workers remained in the car while the CBP agents similarly stopped another truck and arrested two more men, who were then squeezed into the back seat of the CBP vehicle as well. The agents continued looking for people on the same road, arresting one other man who was put in a second vehicle, until they finally brought the men to the Border Patrol station in San Angelo.

At the station, Mr. Jaimes-Villegas was questioned by one of the arresting agents.  Mr. Jaimes-Villegas informed the agent that he did not want to sign a form agreeing to be sent out of the country. He then was questioned a second time by a different CBP agent, who told him that he had to sign, and tried to convince him that it would be better for him to do so, telling him he was going to be deported anyway. Mr. Jaimes-Villegas refused to sign, which appeared to upset the agent. CBP proceeded to hold Mr. Jaimes-Villegas in a cell for three hours and then transported him to another holding facility where he spent the night in a room with 10 other people.


10. Washington

Western District of Washington
Filing date:  3/12/13

Matt Adams, Legal Director
                 Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

Contact: Matt Adams l Northwest Immigrant Rights Project l 206-957-8611 l

On June 23, 2011, Gustavo Vargas Ramirez was stopped by the Anacortes, Washington police, allegedly for failing to use his turn signal.  He provided a valid license, registration and proof of insurance.  Despite this, the police officer called a CBP agent, who responded that he would run Mr.Vargas Ramirez’ name through the CBP database.  The police officer informed the CBP agent that he could only wait for as long as it took to complete the paperwork on the infraction, unless he was specifically requested to detain Mr. Vargas Ramirez.  The CBP agent then called back, saying he could find no documentation and asked that the police officer allow him to speak to Mr. Vargas Ramirez directly.  The police officer noted in his report that Mr. Vargas Ramirez told the CBP agent that he would not answer any questions without talking to a lawyer.  Nonetheless, the CBP agent then instructed the police officer to detain Mr. Vargas Ramirez. Based on this request, the police officer handcuffed Mr. Vargas Ramirez and transported him to the city jail. A CBP agent later arrived at the Anacortes Police Department and took custody of Mr. Vargas Ramirez. 

The CBP agent’s report of the incident erroneously states that he was called to help with translation issues.  This report also states, in error, that the CBP agent arrived at the scene of the traffic stop where he took custody of Mr. Vargas Ramirez after Mr. Vargas Ramirez admitted that he had been born in Mexico.

Although Mr. Vargas Ramirez has no criminal record, he was taken into immigration custody without any bond and transferred to the Northwest Detention Center, where he remained for a month before finally being released.  The immigration proceedings against him subsequently were closed.



Other CBP abuse of authority cases

1. Washington

Sanchez, et al. v. U.S. Office of Border Patrol, et al.
No. 12-00735 (W.D. Washington, filed Apr. 26, 2012)

Perkins Coie LLP
                 Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

Contact: Matt Adams l Northwest Immigrant Rights Project l 206-957-8611 l

In this class action, three plaintiffs, all U.S. citizens, challenge the U.S. Border Patrol’s practice of routinely stopping vehicles on the Olympic Peninsula and interrogating occupants about their immigration status, based solely on the racial and ethnic appearance of the occupants, in violation of their constitutional rights.  On behalf of themselves and others who have been subjected to similar stops, the plaintiffs ask the court to order the Border Patrol to halt all such stops until its agents on the Olympic Peninsula have received training and have demonstrated, through testing, that they understand the constitutional and other legal requirements necessary to stop and detain an individual. 

Two of the named plaintiffs are correctional officers, one of whom is also a part-time police officer.  The third plaintiff was, at the time suit was filed, an 18 year-old high school student. Two of the plaintiffs have been stopped on numerous occasions.

2. California

Askins and Ramirez v. Department of Homeland Security, et al.
No. 12-CV-2600 W BLM (S.D. California, filed October 24, 2012)

Counsel: ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties

                 Morrison Foerster LLP

Contact: Jess Jollett l ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties l 619-398-4484 l

This case is about preserving the fundamental First Amendment right to hold government accountable at the border and challenging CBP abuse of those who seek to exercise these rights.  Ray Askins is an activist concerned about environmental issues at the border. While standing on a public street in Calexico, he took photographs of the port of entry building to illustrate a presentation he planned to give on vehicle emissions at ports of entry. Christian Ramirez is a human rights activist who photographed male CBP agents frisking female travelers as they were preparing to leave the United States. Both Mr. Askins and Mr. Ramirez were on the United States side of the border in areas open to the public. In both cases, border enforcement agents detained, harassed, and threatened them, temporarily confiscated their cameras, and deleted their photographs.  Border agents also physically abused Mr. Askins. The case seeks to prevent the border enforcement agencies from suppressing the lawful recording of border agents doing their job in public and to recover damages for Mr. Askins’s injuries.

3. Ohio

Muniz, et al. v. Gallegos, et al.
No. 09-02865 (N.D. Ohio. filed Dec. 10, 2009)
No. 12-4419 (appeal to the 6th Circuit, filed Nov. 29, 2012)

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc
                 Murray & Murray Co., L.P.A.

Contact: Mark Heller l 419-255-0814 l

In this class action, individuals and two workers’ rights organizations challenge federal border patrol agents and local police officers, alleging that officers engage in systematic racial profiling of Hispanic residents in three Ohio towns. Several plaintiffs describe being stopped and questioned about their immigration status while driving, pumping gas, or walking their children home from school. Plaintiffs allege that Border Patrol officers act solely on the basis of their Hispanic appearance and do not have any reasonable suspicion or probable cause to suspect that they are present without authorization. Plaintiffs have appealed the lower court’s dismissal for lack of jurisdiction to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case is now pending.

4. Texas

No. 3:12-CV-05186 (N.D. Texas, filed Dec. 19, 2012)

Counsel: David Armendáriz
                 De Mott, McChesney, Curtright & Armendáriz, LLP l 210-534-1844 l

Josue Hernandez-Carranco, traveling with his father and a friend, stopped in the parking lot of a gas station to use the restroom when two CBP agents approached and stood in front of the doors of his truck. The agent on Mr. Hernandez-Carranco’s side opened his door, grabbed him by his arm, and, in Spanish, demanded his papers. Mr. Hernandez-Carranco replied in English that he did, and showed the agent his valid Texas driver’s license. In Spanish, the agent told him that this was insufficient. He then handcuffed Mr. Hernandez-Carranco, pulled him out of the truck, and placed him in a CBP van with several other men. Mr. Hernandez-Carranco was cold, but the agent refused his request to grab his jacket before he was put in the van.

Once on the road, an agent drove the van so recklessly that the men feared for their safety. When the agents finally agreed to a rest stop, they handcuffed the men in pairs and took them out of the van on the side of the road. The CBP agents taunted and humiliated one man for his discomfort at having to relieve himself in this situation.

Mr. Hernandez-Carranco seeks damages for his unlawful seizure. At the time of arrest, the agents lacked any reasonable suspicion that Mr. Hernandez-Carranco, his father, or his friend had committed an unlawful act or were in the country illegally. They were over 200 miles from the border, had broken no traffic laws, and had taken no evasive or otherwise unusual action. The CBP agents interrogated and arrested Mr. Hernandez-Carranco based solely on his Hispanic appearance.

5. Texas

W.D. Texas, Filed Oct. 9, 2012

Counsel: David Armendáriz
                 De Mott, McChesney, Curtright & Armendáriz, LLP l 210-534-1844 l

Alejandro Garcia De La Paz was riding home from work in Texas in the passenger seat of his co-worker’s truck, with two other coworkers riding in the backseat, when they were pulled over by two CBP vehicles using their emergency flashers. The two agents approached the truck on both sides of the car and, without explaining the reason for the stop, asked whether the passengers were U.S. citizens. Upon hearing Mr. Garcia’s answer, the agent opened Mr. Garcia’s door, grabbed him by the arm, pulled him out of the truck, and brought him to his patrol car.

At the time of the stop, the agents were not patrolling the U.S. border and had no reasonable suspicion that the driver of the car, Mr. Garcia, or the other two passengers had violated or were violating any law. The agents also had no reason to believe that Mr. Garcia and his co-workers were noncitizens, had recently come from a border area, or were in violation of any immigration law. Instead, the agents stopped Mr. Garcia and his co-workers solely because of their Hispanic appearance. 

Mr. Garcia seeks damages from the individual agents for the violation of his constitutional right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures, and from the United States for his unlawful arrest by the agents.


Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP’s) 100-Mile Rule (ACLU) October 2014

Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery (Migration Policy Insitute) January, 2013

Uncovering USBP: Bonus Programs for United States Border Patrol Agents and the Arrest of Lawfully Present Individuals (Report by Families for Freedom and the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law) January, 2013

Border Security: Moving Beyond Past Benchmarks (AILA Report) January, 2013

Border Patrol Agents as Interpreters Along the Northern Border: Unwise Policy, Illegal Practice (IPC Special Report) September, 2012

Culture of Cruelty (No More Deaths Report) May, 2012

Crossing the Line at the Border (two-part PBS video report) April, 2012


Illegal immigrants sue border agents for detainment in cold cell, The Washington Times, March 13, 2013

Immigrant groups sue federal border agencies, Huffington Post, March 13, 2013

Immigration rights groups accuse officials of racial profiling, Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2013

Lawsuits allege abuse by border patrol agents, Detroit Free Press, March 13, 2013

Lawsuits allege abuse by border patrol agents, Great Falls Tribune, March 13, 2013

Lawsuits allege abuse by Border Patrol agents, United Press International (UPI), March 13, 2013

Lawsuits allege abuse by border patrol agents, USA Today, March 13, 2013

LI girl's temporary deportation among 10 lawsuits, New York Newsday, March 12, 2013

Long Island family says mistaken deportation of girl, now 6, to Guatemala caused her PTSD, New York Daily News, March 13, 2013

Long Island girl's temporary deportation among 10 lawsuits, Long Island Newsday, March 13, 2013