ROCHESTER, Minn. — Kerlin Sanchez Villalobos and her younger sister left Honduras for what they believed would be a safer life in the U.S., but instead, the girls were greeted with inhumane treatment at the hands of the U.S. government, a new lawsuit alleges.
“Once I got to the border and saw the border, I started crying. I was so emotional because I felt like this is it — everything that's happened, it's done, and now I am going to be OK.”
But what the then-16-year-old didn’t know was that shortly after they were released from the Customs and Border Protection Detention Center less than 30 miles outside of El Paso in Clint, Texas, the facility would make headlines for what the recently filed lawsuit calls “grotesque violations of children’s rights.”
For Sanchez Villalobos and her sister, that meant sleeping in cages, being hungry all the time and being forced to compete against other children for food.
Sanchez Villalobos and her mother, Daysi Villalobos Izaguirre, filed a lawsuit Monday, Oct. 11, in U.S. District Court in Minnesota on behalf of her minor daughter, “Y.S.” It is litigated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and Texas, as well as Dorsey & Whitney LLP.
The lawsuit, which names the United States of America as the defendant, alleges that despite decades of court orders establishing that the government has a duty to care for and protect unaccompanied children, the U.S. failed to fulfill its most basic obligations to Sanchez Villalobos and her sister.
“Their jailors — agents of the United States — degraded them, terrified them, and physically assaulted Kerlin,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit asks the court to find that the government committed negligence, assault and battery, and award the girls financial compensation.
Now 18, Sanchez Villalobos and her 16-year-old sister spoke with the Post Bulletin about what they went through and their hopes for the future. (The Post Bulletin has agreed to identify the 16-year-old by only her initials, as she is identified in court filings, in an effort to respect her privacy as a minor.)
Before the girls came to the U.S., they lived in Honduras with their grandparents and aunts. But it wasn’t safe. Due to the girls’ pending immigration case, they did not disclose many details about what made them seek asylum in the U.S.
“There is a lot of crime. A lot of killings. A lot of robbery. It is dangerous to go out for a ride,” Sanchez Villalobos said.
On May 20, 2019, Sanchez Villalobos and her sister left their home — making the trek to join their mother who was already living in Rochester.
“We were nervous, we didn’t know how it was going to pan out,” Sanchez Villalobos said. “It was difficult, because we would sleep under bridges, by the train tracks, we would sleep on the ground just like any other animal would.”
The girls hopped trains and eventually made it to Mexico, where they witnessed a shootout and stayed on a deserted beach with no food or water.
Finally making it to the border, Sanchez Villalobos said, she thought the sisters’ difficulties would be over and they would be reunited with their mother. The girls were arrested at the border and brought to a CBP detention center in Clint.
“While standing in line, a male CBP agent forced both girls against their wishes to lift their shirts to their bra line, in view of all of the adults standing nearby,” the lawsuit states.
Medicine that the girls’ grandmother bought to help Y.S. manage pain following a serious injury the year before was thrown away by a CBP agent and Y.S. was never given a medical screening, according to the lawsuit.
When the girls had finished with CBP intake, they were taken to what is colloquially referred to by the asylum seekers as the “cooler,” or “hielera” in Spanish for it’s abnormally cold temperature.
“The cold aggravated Y.S.’s injury, and she and Kerlin resorted to wrapping her leg in the Mylar sheet that was given to them to use as blankets. This left them with no blankets for the rest of their bodies,” the lawsuit states.
”After 30 to 60 minutes, the girls were pulled out of the cooler and brought to the building where they would be held for the next nine days.”
CBP agents ‘tormented’ children with competitions for food
The lawsuit alleges that the girls were kept in appalling conditions while held at the CBP facility in Clint.
“I wasn't fed well, and the places where I was held, in the phone calls, they would always tell us to tell our mother we were treated well, but we weren't,” Sanchez Villalobos said. “We weren't treated well, we were treated badly.”
It is alleged in court documents that the U.S. failed to fulfill its “minimum legal duty” to provide proper care.
“The United States did not provide Kerlin and Y.S. access to drinking water. In fact, the girls do not recall ever being given water. Agents gave them small juice boxes to drink with meals,” the complaint states. “With knowledge that the regular meals were inadequate, the CBP agents tormented the detained children by making them compete with one another for extra food. Hungry children were forced to throw a ball in a basket, for example, and the winner would get a burrito while the other children would be left hungry. Both Kerlin and Y.S. competed with the other children in an attempt to get food to quell their hunger.”
The lawsuit states that Sanchez Villalobos was kicked by a CBP guard twice, knocking her to the ground, and making her food inedible and injuring her so that she couldn't walk properly. While at the facility, Sanchez Villalobos and her sister also witnessed other children being abused and neglected, and were forced into caregiving roles.
After nine days in the Clint facility, the girls were flown to Brownsville, Texas, to be placed in separate group homes. Separating the girls without a legally justifiable reason based on their immigration status or health is against an existing agreement of how unaccompanied minors should be treated. The group homes where the girls were sent have been cited for significant violations.
“While they were no longer subjected to the physical harm of the Clint facility, the girls were subjected to further emotional and psychological harm,” the lawsuit states. “The emotional damage of being separated from one another needlessly without any knowledge of whether they would be reunited was crushing to both Kerlin and Y.S.”
The girls described their close relationship, saying they were often asked at school as if they were twins. Sanchez Villalobos said that when the sisters arrived in Minnesota and had separate rooms, she would leave her own room empty to be with her sister.
“I don't like to be separated from her,” Y.S. said.
“We are so used to being together for everything,” Sanchez Villalobos said.
At separate group homes, Sanchez Villalobos was sent to Minnesota nine days before her sister.
“When I was able to be reunited with them and see both of them, I started crying,” Y.S. said of her mother and sister.
Sanchez Villalobos still thinks about her time border both for herself and others who may try to come to the U.S.
“It comes to my mind a lot about people who are currently crossing, about children at the border, and I just wonder how are they being treated right now,” she said. “Are they being treated worse? Are they being treated better? I hear a lot about people from my country still trying to make their way and their expectation of getting there and being treated well is a far contrast from what the reality is.”
Life in Minnesota
More than two years after their traumatic experience at the border, the girls are in school and with their mother. Sanchez Villalobos is a senior in high school. Her favorite subject is art. She says she uses it as a distraction — an escape.
“I like it in school. If I'm at school and I don't understand something because I don't know English, my teachers take the time to explain things to me, to communicate with me and I like that,” she said.
For Y.S., history and literature are her favorite subjects. The story of George Washington and the U.S. fight against the British is a particular favorite of hers because it shows the motivation of early Americans.
Sanchez Villalobos said she hopes one day to become a doctor or lawyer while her younger sister has hopes of becoming a veterinarian.
Sanchez Villalobos said she has mixed feelings about her experience seeking asylum.
“From one side, it makes me feel bad, but in another way, it makes me feel good as well because this is something that I am giving from me, to others, because I know that this will help others,” she said. “And other people are going to know our story when they aren't imagining what is happening.”