United States Agrees to Settle Lawsuit Alleging Wrongful Deportation
Washington D.C. - After more than two years of litigation, the U.S. government has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Leonel Ruiz on behalf of his minor daughter, E.R. The suit alleged that in 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), unlawfully detained Mr. Ruiz’s then 4-year-old daughter—a U.S. citizen—when she arrived at Dulles Airport in Virginia, deprived her of any contact with her parents, and sent her back to Guatemala rather than allowing her to join her parents, who awaited her arrival in New York.
According to the complaint, during the twenty hours E.R. was detained in CBP custody with her grandfather, she was given nothing to eat other than a cookie and soda and nowhere to nap other than the cold floor. She was finally able to return home to the United States nearly three weeks later, but only after her father hired a local attorney to fly to Guatemala to retrieve her. Once home, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by a child psychologist, who concluded that this was a result of her detention and her separation from her parents. The lawsuit, filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), sought damages for the harm E.R. suffered as a result of this ordeal. In June, the government agreed to pay E.R. $32,500.
On October 30, 2013, the government moved to dismiss the case, arguing that, among other things, the actions of the CBP officers fell within the “discretionary function exception” to the FTCA, which bars certain claims involving an element of judgment or choice. The court rejected this argument, finding that, taking the allegations in the complaint as true, there were no “discernible social, economic, or political policy considerations in the regulatory or statutory regime that would explain the CBP Officers’ decisions” while E.R. was held in Dulles’ secondary inspection area. Thus, the judgment was not the kind of discretionary function that the exception was designed to protect. The court also found that CBP’s alleged treatment of E.R. violated the settlement agreement in Flores v. Reno regarding the detention of minors, as well as CBP’s internal policies developed to comply with the Flores agreement.
“This settlement is a fair and just one,” said Melissa Crow of the American Immigration Council, one of E.R.’s pro bono attorneys. “We hope that the government has learned from this case and that, in the future, CBP will take steps to ensure that other children do not endure similarly harrowing experiences.”
“Mr. Ruiz’s greatest concern has always been that what happened to his daughter should never happen again” said Matthew Gurgel of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, also pro bono counsel to E.R. “E.R. is a U.S. citizen and has constitutional rights to travel to the United States and to be free from unreasonable detention, and what happened to her should not have happened to any child.”
“With ever-increasing numbers of U.S.-born children of mixed-status families, this will continue to be a problem unless CBP formally trains its officers on how to better handle issues around returning U.S. citizen children,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Project, which also provided pro bono representation to E.R. “CBP’s role is to facilitate lawful entries into the United States, not to throw up barriers and roadblocks.”
For press inquiries, contact Wendy Feliz at [email protected] or 202-507-7524.