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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ROCHESTER—For Kerlin Sanchez Villalobos and her sister, a typical day at the migrant detention center in Clint, Texas began before the crack of dawn.

Officers from the U.S. Border Patrol would bang their batons on the rails to wake them up. They’d be given cold oatmeal for breakfast, and Ramen noodles for lunch, a pudding cup or small cookie for a snack, and a burrito for dinner. During the day, Sanchez Villalobos and her sister, who Sahan Journal is identifying by the initials Y.S. because she is a 16-year-old minor, said they’d watch over the younger detained children, combing their hair and helping them nap.

The amount of food was never enough for Sanchez Villalobos, and the young women said agents made kids compete for leftover food. Sanchez Villalobos said she sometimes took part  in the games. They don’t remember ever being given water and said they were too afraid to ask.The guards also taunted children by saying they were being taken back to Honduras. 

At one point, Sanchez Villalobos said an officer berated her for eating her lunch while sitting on the ground. The officer then kicked her twice, she said, once in her right ankle and once in her back. Today, more than two years later, Sanchez Villalobos said her right ankle still swells periodically from the injury. When that happens, she wears a medical boot. 

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

For nine days during the summer of 2019, Sanchez Villalobos and Y.S. were held in the facility where startling images of detained underage migrants headlined national and international media. Critics dubbed the conditions as “kids in cages.”

Now, Sanchez Villalobos, 18, and her mother, Daysi Villalobos Izaguirre, who is acting on behalf of Y.S., are suing the United States government in the U.S. District Court in Minnesota for negligence, assault, and battery for their treatment of the young women in detention. Represented by American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, ACLU of Texas, and Dorsey & Whitney law firm, the family filed the lawsuit Monday. 

ACLU Minnesota attorney Ian Bratlie told Sahan Journal that this is the first lawsuit in Minnesota in which children are suing the government for its treatment at the border.

“It’s definitely not common. Part of what’s driving this and, hopefully, potentially future litigation is just how egregious things got,” Bratlie said. “I’m hopeful that other kids will sue, but I’m not sure.”

Bratlie said detention conditions for asylum seekers aren’t as poor as they were during the “kids in cages” era, but that they are still poor today.

The lawsuit is part of ACLU’s work to hold Customs and Border Protection accountable for its treatment of asylum seekers. The lawsuit alleges that the United States government violated its duty to care for and protect unaccompanied children. 

Bratlie said attorneys served the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Minnesota Tuesday. Sanchez Villalobos and her mother are seeking $150,000 in damages. Sahan Journal reached out to the US Attorney’s office Tuesday evening for a comment on the lawsuit. We will update this post when we receive a response.

Sanchez Villalobos spent 20 days in detention and Y.S. 29 days before the federal government sent them to their mom in Rochester, Minnesota. Today, their lives are different. Sanchez Villalobos recently started 12th grade at Mayo High School and said she wants to become a doctor or a lawyer. Y.S., who is in 11th grade, said she wants to become a veterinarian. Both of them spent much of the summer selling cold treats out of their family ice cream truck. 

Sitting on a patio outside their home on a late fall afternoon, they both recall the longing they felt during the long days in detention in Texas. 

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

Their lawsuit alleges that asylum seekers were subject to physical assault, kept in cages, provided with inadequate food and water, and forced to compete for food. Agents also allegedly failed to provide medical treatment, forced them to watch the mistreatment of other children, and forced them to care for young children.

Kerlin Sanchez Villalobos and Y.S. like to sell ice cream out of their family truck during the Rochester summers. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Sanchez Villalobos, who was 16 years old at the time, and her sister Y.S., who was 14 then, left Honduras in May 2019 to reunite with their mother in Minnesota.

“They had very little money and only one backpack between them,” the lawsuit reads. “The backpack had a few changes of clothes, medicine for Y.S., and their birth certificates and school records. They were alone and hoping to reunite with their mother.”

The two sisters crossed the border from Mexico in June 2019. CBP agents arrested them and brought them to the infamous detention facility in Clint, Texas where they “warehoused hundreds of children and packed them together like sardines,” according to the ACLU. 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 confiscated the girls’ clothes, backpack, and the medication Y.S. needed for a previous leg and hip injury when she was assaulted on her way to school in Honduras. During her detention, she alleges she was never examined or provided medication. Despite telling her she would get her medicine back, Y.S. said she instead witnessed an officer throw it away. 

After being processed, the lawsuit says Customs and Border Protection put Sanchez Villalobos and her sister in a room that asylum seekers often called the “hielera,” a Spanish word for freezer. All they had was a Mylar sheet to keep them warm. 

Soon, guards moved them to another building where they were kept in a cage with more than 30 others for nine days. The cages had three rows of triple bunk beds on both sides. The mattresses were designed with three pieces of metal pipe running across, making the beds uncomfortable. Most of the children slept on the floor.

Like most of the others, Sanchez Villalobos slept on the cold floor — next to a cot she saved for her little sister.

During those nine days, they could shower only once, the young women told Sahan Journal. They had to wash their underwear in a sink. They couldn’t even brush their teeth everyday, and would comb their hair with plastic forks.

Many of the children would constantly cry because they were separated from their parents, Sanchez Villalobos said. 

“The officers would get really mad when the little kids would cry,” she said. “And they would tell us that they didn’t want to hear them cry. They would instruct us to, to calm them down.”

Usually, both sisters would braid or comb the kids hair to help console them. 

According to the lawsuit, the sisters saw guards forcing a boy to kneel in suffocating heat with his arms raised over his head for punishment, according to the lawsuit. His crime? Searching for his socks in a garbage bin.

After five days in the detention center, the sisters were finally able to call their mom who had been worrying and waiting in Minnesota.

Sanchez Villalobos  and Y.S. told Sahan Journal that officers pressured them to tell their mom over the phone that they were being treated well. If they did not comply, the guards said they wouldn’t allow them to call their mother again.

After several days in detainment, the two sisters got on a bus to a group home called Nueva Esperanza. Sanchez Villalobos  and Y.S. say they were promised by agents on the bus that they wouldn’t be separated. But when they arrived at the group home, the agents wouldn’t let Sanchez Villalobos  off of the bus. Y.S. chased after the bus and Sanchez Villalobos  banged on the windows screaming for her sister.

At the group home, Y.S. said employees yelled at her to stop crying rather than consoling her.

Sanchez Villalobos was moved to a group home called El Presidente. Both group homes have been cited for a number of safety violations between 2016 and 2019, the Texas Tribune reported in December 2019. El Presidente received 45 violations and Nueva Esperanza had 30. 

After 20 days, Sanchez Villalobos was able to fly to Minnesota. Y.S. remained in custody for nine additional days.  

Sanchez Villalobos and her mother first filed a complaint against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security in December 2020. In April of this year, Customs and Border Protection denied the claim. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to the complaint.

Bratlie said ACLU first found out about Sanchez Villalobos’ story in the summer of 2019, when reporting of children in cages first grew in prominence. Before filing a lawsuit, the organization had to first file a Federal Tort Claim Act, which allows compensation for harm inflicted by the federal government. The government ultimately denied their tort claim. The process, paired with delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, slowed things down.

But the sisters are hoping that their lawsuit will change the way the federal government greets people who are fleeing their country to cross the border. 

“I don’t want them to be treating other kids the same way that we were treated,” Sanchez Villalobos said. 

Becky Dernbach contributed reporting to this story.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.