New York, NY - February 19, 2016 - Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice), in conjunction with the law firm of Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzeli and Pratt, P.A., announced the settlement of a landmark Federal Tort Claims Act case on behalf of Alba Quiñonez Flores that challenged the conditions of her detention in multiple holding stations operated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) along the U.S./Mexico border in southern Texas.
These cells, called "hieleras" (ice-boxes) because they are deliberately kept at low temperatures, are maintained in deplorable conditions. Ms. Quiñonez, like thousands of other immigrants detained by CBP every year, was held for several days in frigid, dirty, overcrowded holding cells and denied access to proper medical care, adequate meals, clean drinking water, and basic hygiene products. CBP never provided her any form of bedding, forcing her to sleep on cold concrete floors for several nights with bright fluorescent lights on 24 hours a day. AI Justice attorney, Jennie Santos-Bourne, noted that "[T]he lawsuit was brought to challenge many of the inhumane practices and deplorable conditions existing at these federal detention centers and to seek compensation for Ms. Quiñonez's damages."
Ms. Quiñonez crossed the border into the United States with several prescription medications from her native country to treat a number of serious chronic conditions. Upon arrival at the hielera, CBP agents took her medications and threw them in the trash without asking what they were for and without providing any medical assessment to provide replacement medications. Unsurprisingly, within a day of being denied access to her medications, Ms. Quiñonez collapsed in her cell and had to be transported to a local hospital. Since this lawsuit was filed, CBP promulgated a new policy in October 2015 requiring its agents to ensure that any detainee[ATB1]
with non-U.S. prescribed medication has his or her medication validated by a medical professional or is taken in a timely manner to a medical practitioner to obtain an equivalent U.S. prescription.
AI Justice obtained a substantial monetary settlement of $80,000.00 on behalf of Ms. Quiñonez to compensate her for the damages suffered during her time in CBP custody. This award is illustrative of the harm and trauma detainees are exposed to in the deplorable conditions at CBP's hieleras. Ms. Quiñonez commented that "When I thought all was lost and that I would be deported [AI Justice] arrived with help and supported me in my federal case against the U.S. government for the abuses I suffered in their detention centers. And thanks to AI Justice, I learned about my rights as a human being."
This lawsuit also resulted in two important rulings regarding venue in federal district court. First, in a landmark ruling, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York held in a published decision that non-citizens paroled into the United States who are seeking asylum can establish proper venue in the federal district where they reside while their claim is pending. This was an issue of first impression never previously decided in any court. Second, Judge Weinstein denied the Government's attempt to transfer the case to Texas based on convenience considerations, rejecting the argument that the case should be tried where Ms. Quiñonez was detained and the events in question occurred. Attorney Ira Kurzban noted that "[T]hese two rulings should be instrumental in the future in preventing the Government from forcing non-citizens to unnecessarily litigate cases far away from where they live."
The case is Alba Quiñonez Flores v. United States of America, 14-CV-3166 (E.D.N.Y), filed May 20, 2014.