Back in 2016, nearly a year before the Trump administration began officially separating families at the southern border, a woman named Suny Rodríguez became lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government. The asylum-seeker from Honduras accused immigration officials of “extreme and outrageous” mistreatment, including “attempts to take her young son from her,” The New Yorker reports. Her fight against the government could serve as a path to justice for thousands of other migrants separated from their families.
According to The New Yorker, Rodríguez fled Honduras with her boyfriend, Rafael, and their seven year old son, referred to in the piece as Daniel. The group arrived in Rio Grande City, Texas, on January 16, 2015, where they were picked up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP):
Rafael was separated from the family, without explanation, and taken to a facility in Pearsall, Texas. He didn’t see his son for the next eight months. Rodríguez and Daniel were taken to a hielera, or “icebox”—a frigid holding cell—where they had to sleep on a wet, crowded floor. One agent, Rodríguez recalls, pressured her to sign paperwork consenting to her deportation. “It’s pointless to seek asylum,” he told her. The next day, they were shuffled to another holding facility, known as the perrera, or “dog pound,” because it had chain-link fencing, like a kennel. Agents had seized Daniel’s asthma medication, and he shivered and struggled to breathe.
After nearly a month of what Rodríguez characterizes as abusive treatment, she and other women in detention compiled a list of demands for immigration agents. The New Yorker writes, “They wanted tampons and shampoo, the right to sleep in the dark (the guards kept the lights on at all hours, giving the rooms a Guantánamo glow), and better legal resources.” Rodríguez said access to legal resources was one of their biggest challenges. “If you’d ask to see your attorney or to visit the legal room, the officers would make excuses for why you couldn’t do it,” she explained.
One April morning, agents tried to separate Daniel from his mother:
Officers roused Rodríguez from bed. “You’ve got a doctor’s appointment,” one told her. Three agents escorted her and Daniel outside, to a parking lot, where an agent stood filming on a cell phone. They walked the pair to the back of a bus that had its rear door open. “Put your kid up there,” one agent said, pointing to the bus. They planned to take him to a shelter for unaccompanied minors. “He’ll be adopted,” an agent said. “Another family will get him.” (The ice official declined to comment on Rodríguez’s account of the attempted separation but noted that custody determinations, such as Daniel’s, are made on a “case-by-case basis.”)
Daniel refused to leave his mother’s side and agents eventually gave up trying. A month later in May, Yale law student Conchita Cruz and some of her classmates were assigned to work on Rodríguez’s case. By May 14, 2016, Rodríguez and Rafael were granted relief from deportation and Daniel was later awarded asylum.
Those Yale students went on to form the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). Rodríguez enlisted their help to sue the government. According to The New Yorker, “The complaint was banal and revelatory at once, enumerating a litany of alleged abuses that were both illegal and ubiquitous at the border.”
The attorneys saw her lawsuit as “an early test case.” Their reasoning, according to the article, was to “clear a path for suits from other people who had suffered similar abuses.”
The government offered to settle the case with a $125,000 payment to Rodríguez and Daniel. Michelle Mendez, an attorney at Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), hopes the victory inspires others to fight the government in court. “The amount of money that Suny received from the government says a lot,” she explained. “They essentially admitted that what they did was unconscionable, and that they are going to pay damages for it. Suny wasn’t ultimately separated from her child, but we know that thousands of parents were separated, and they haven’t received a dime, and they should receive a lot more.”