When Kerlin Sanchez Villalobos and her sister came from Honduras to reunite with their mother in Minnesota, the girls had no idea of the fear – or cages – that awaited them at the U.S. border.
The sisters crossed over from Mexico in June 2019 and were arrested by Customs and Border Protection agents. The teen girls’ subsequent harrowing journey through detention centers and group homes in Texas displays our federal government’s punitive policy toward people seeking freedom and safety in the United States, as well as a complete lack of oversight, safeguards, and accountability in our immigration system.
“Just being locked away, it’s awful,” Kerlin said. “I felt bad because I thought that when they grabbed me, they were going to take me to where my mom was. It wasn’t like that. They would switch us from place to place. You see such awful things, and they treat you so badly.”
On Oct. 11, Kerlin and her mother (acting on behalf of the younger daughter, Y.S., who is still a minor) sued the United States in U.S. District Court in Minnesota to hold the government accountable for its negligence, assault and battery of the girls. They’re asking the court to find that the government committed negligence, assault and battery of the girls; and for damages. They’re represented by the ACLU of Minnesota, ACLU of Texas, and Dorsey & Whitney LLP.
This lawsuit is part of the ACLU’s nationwide work to hold CBP accountable for its systemic mistreatment of asylum seekers at the border. This mistreatment of the two sisters violated the United States’ duty – spelled out in decades of court orders – to care for and protect unaccompanied children. This abuse – described by Y.S. as the “complicated horror of the place” – included:
• Physical assault
• Housing children in cages
• Failing to provide adequate food or any water, and forcing children to compete for food
• Throwing away needed medication and failing to provide treatment
• Forcing them to watch the mistreatment of other children
• Forcing them to care for young children.
When Kerlin and Y.S. crossed the border into Texas, they were only 16 and 14. They were trying desperately to reach their mom, who lives in Minnesota.
The teen sisters had very little money. They carried a single backpack between them containing clothing, medication, birth certificates, and school records. CBP brought them to the infamous Clint, Texas, detention facility where the government warehoused hundreds of children and packed them together like sardines. Guards patted the girls down, and made the teens lift their shirts for inspection by male guards, in view of other men standing in line for processing.
The agents took away the girls’ clothes, backpack, and the medication Y.S. needed for a leg and hip injury sustained in Honduras when she was assaulted on her way to school.
“They said they were going to give the medication back to me, but I actually saw them throw it in the garbage,” Y.S. said.
Agents brought the girls to an area called the “freezer” because it was so cold. They had nothing to keep them warm but a Mylar sheet and each other. When Y.S.’s leg started aching, she wrapped the foil blanket around it tightly to try to stop the pain. During her detention, no one examined her or provided medication.
Guards moved the girls from the freezer to another building where they were kept in cages for nine days.
“The feeling is awful,” Kerlin said. “There’s a lot of things that are happening. Children are crying, kids are fainting. All kinds of atrocities happened there. There were little kids that were crying because they were separated from adults. The officers told us to control the children. Us older kids, we would just try to console them and talk to them. What I would do is braid their hair.”
The girls were allowed to shower just once in nine days. They had to wash their underwear in the sink and wear them wet. They couldn’t even brush their teeth every day. They had to comb their long hair with plastic forks.
“We were desperate, we were sad, my heart was just sinking,” Y.S. said.
During the day, when they were outside for meals, only pregnant girls and CBP staff could stay in the thin slice of shade. Everyone else was stuck under the broiling sun. The girls saw guards make a boy kneel in the suffocating heat with his arms raised over his head for punishment - just for looking for his socks.
Inside the cages, Kerlin claimed one of the scarce cots for her little sister and took the cold floor herself, sleeping right next to her.
"There were so many nights when we couldn’t sleep,” Kerlin said. “They put giant fans to blow on the cages, and they would turn them on as high as they would go. You can’t stand the cold there, especially when you have really thin blankets, and they would leave fans on all night. In the morning, guards would wake us up by banging their batons on the bedposts.”
The girls were constantly hungry, given just cold oatmeal for breakfast, a cup of ramen noodles for lunch, a pudding or small cookie for a snack, and a burrito for dinner. The girls don’t recall ever being given water, and were too afraid to ask. Agents taunted the children by making kids compete for any leftover food. Children who lost these cruel games walked away still hungry.
At one point, a guard kicked Kerlin while she was eating on the floor, then kicked her again as she started to stand, making her fall. Two years later, that ankle and foot still hurt, and Kerlin sometimes needs a walking boot.
Five days passed in the cages before the girls could call their mom, who was waiting and worrying in Minnesota. “I felt desperate,” Daysi recalls. “I didn’t know anything about them.”
Some of the girls’ treatment amounted to emotional torture. The girls remember guards taunting the children that they were being taken back to Honduras and laughing. “They would tell us we were very dirty, we were pigs,” Kerlin said.
Several days in, the sisters were moved yet again, and promised they wouldn’t be separated. But when the bus pulled up in front of a group home, agents called out only one of their names.
“I told them I wasn’t going to get off the bus unless my sister is coming with me,” Y.S. said. “They told me your sister is getting off right behind you. When I got off the bus, the door closed behind me, and the bus started backing up. I got really sad. I was going to run after the bus but my friends grabbed me.”
Kerlin spent a total of 20 days in detention and Y.S. 29 days before the federal government sent them home to their mom in Minnesota.
Today, they’re living safely with their mom and toddler sister in Rochester. They're doing well in school. Kerlin likes to read a lot.
Still, their mother, Daysi, wonders about a system that would treat her teen girls this way, and she hopes their lawsuit helps prevent other children from suffering like this.
Even today, there are things Daysi doesn’t know about how her girls were treated. And even today, when the sisters talk about their mistreatment, they hold each other’s hands for comfort.