Civil rights groups file third of four complaints with DHS watchdog related to CBP’s mistreatment of detained people.

SAN DIEGO – Yesterday, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) and the ACLU Border Rights Center filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG), calling upon the inspector general to press U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to implement a detainee locator system and to undertake an immediate review of CBP’s routine separation of family members as a result of agency processing and detention.

“CBP’s separation of family members during processing and detention causes a myriad of concrete harms to vulnerable individuals,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, senior staff attorney for the ACLUF-SDIC. “And CBP must not be allowed to disappear people for days or weeks on end without providing some publicly accessible information regarding detainees’ whereabouts.”

Between March and July 2019, ACLUF-SDIC staff interviewed more than 100 people soon after their release from CBP custody, documenting numerous disturbing accounts of abuse and mistreatment, including CBP’s separation of family members.

When processing and detaining individuals, CBP officials, including U.S. Border Patrol agents, unilaterally decide which family members stay together and which are separated – even though these immigration enforcement officers lack the qualifications and specialized training necessary to make such sensitive determinations. This type of family separation is distinct from the long-term separations that resulted from the Trump Administration’s 2017-2018 policy of forcibly separating and separately detaining young children and their parents.

CBP appears to have a very restricted definition of “family,” separating family members who do not satisfy their narrow definition.

For example:

  • A grandmother was separated from her 9-year-old grandson after agents told her that his birth certificate was insufficient to establish biological familial ties. She was terrified, believing that the boy would be given up for adoption.
  • A mother of two sons, one of them a minor, was separated from them when taken to a hospital for treatment of an injury. After her return, Border Patrol released the mother and minor son together into the United States, separating the older son from them and transferring him to ICE detention.
  • A 26-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras was separated from her 57-year-old mother, whom she later learned was deported back to Honduras.

Family separation causes several harms, including intensifying trauma for vulnerable populations and interfering with individuals’ legal right to seek asylum in the United States. These harms are aggravated when separated family members cannot locate and communicate with each other. For this reason, the ACLU calls upon CBP to implement a detainee locator system to ensure that family members, advocates and lawyers can expeditiously locate individuals the agency detains.

Today’s administrative complaint is the third of four in the series the ACLU has filed or will file with the DHS OIG in the coming weeks. In January, the ACLU filed its first complaint, related to the mistreatment of pregnant people. In February, the ACLU filed its second complaint, addressing CBP’s mistreatment of sick children. The fourth and final complaint will address verbal abuse reported by people who were held in CBP and Border Patrol facilities. In all four complaints, the ACLU’s priority recommendation is that no individual be held in CBP or Border Patrol detention facilities longer than the time required for initial processing – which in no case should exceed 12 hours. A copy of this press release and the complaint can be viewed here: