Sisters Kerlin Sanchez Villalobos, left, and Y.S., right, pose with their mother Daysi Villalobos Izaguirre, center. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Two sisters from Rochester, Minnesota, received an $80,000 settlement from the federal government after being abused and mistreated while detained by Customs and Border Patrol. 

Kerlin Sanchez Villalobos and her mother, acting on behalf of her sister Y.S., sued in federal court in October 2021 and were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and Texas. Sahan Journal is withholding the full name of Y.S. because she is a minor. 

“We hope that the lawsuit and sharing our story changes how the government treats children who are coming to America,” said Sanchez Villalobos in a prepared statement released by the ACLU Thursday. “I don’t want any other kid to be treated the way we were.”

The lawsuit was the first and only one in the country in which migrant children sued the government for treatment at the border, according to Ian Bratlie, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. 

Sanchez Villalobos, 19, and Y.S., 17, were not available for interviews Thursday. A spokesperson for the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is named as a defendant in the case, did not immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

In June 2019, Sanchez Villalobos, then 16, and Y.S., then 14, were held for nine days with 30 others in a Clint, Texas, facility that became infamous for holding “kids in cages,” as some critics noted. They had just crossed the Mexico-Texas border seeking asylum after fleeing their home country of Honduras to join their mother in Rochester. 

The sisters were also separated at Texas group homes that had been cited for violations. In total, Sanchez Villalobos was detained for 20 days, and Y.S. was detained for 29 days.

Sanchez Villalobos and her mother initially sought $150,000 in damages. Terri Nelson, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said the sisters decided the settlement money was adequate enough to “avoid the uncertainty and emotional work it would take to litigate this case.” They agreed on the settlement before depositions were taken, which could have opened them up to reliving the abuse they experienced, Nelson said. Attorneys for both sides are allowed to ask questions during depositions, which are intended to gather information from witnesses.

“No money is going to erase what happened to them,” Nelson said in an interview. “That awful experience is never going away, but they hope this will help other children.”

In an interview with Sahan Journal in 2021, Sanchez Villalobos described border patrol agents taunting children by saying they were taking them back to Honduras. Agents also made children compete for leftover food and banged on the bars of the enclosures in the morning to wake them up.

At one point, Sanchez Villalobos said, an officer berated her for sitting on the floor while eating lunch. The officer then kicked her once in her right ankle and once in her back. The kick in the ankle left an injury that she still periodically dealt with more than two years later, Sanchez Villalobos said.

“We would all feel this sort of emptiness,” Sanchez Villalobos told Sahan Journal last fall. “Especially not knowing if we would ever leave there, or if we would ever see our family again.” 

Y.S. added: “We felt really alone. I mean, I was desperate. I cried every night.” 

The ACLU news release said the federal government also forced the girls to sleep in overcrowded “cages” without bedding, failed to provide them with showers and toothbrushes, and forced them to care for younger children, among other issues.

Sanchez Villalobos and Y.S. attend school and work in Rochester. Sanchez Villalobos told Sahan Journal last fall that she wants to become a doctor or a lawyer. Y.S. expressed interest in becoming a veterinarian. 

The sisters plan on staying in the United States. Nelson said their settlement will help them continue to build their lives here.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal and corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of...