Two teenage sisters fleeing Guatemala became so desperately lost trekking across the Texas desert that when they saw a U.S. Customs and Border Protection truck, they waved for help.
But the sisters, age 19 and 17, claim that they were taken by a Border Patrol officer to a closet in the Presidio intake office, where he forced them to strip and sexually assaulted them in July 2016. Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed legal claims Tuesday against the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of the sisters, now living in Fresno with their mother.
The claims, seeking $750,000 in compensation for each sister, describe in graphic detail the alleged molestation by the Border Patrol officer, whose identity remains unclear.
“What happened in that closet has caused me so much pain and sadness,” the older sister said.” I’m telling my story because I don’t want anyone else to go through this. I hope the officer will be honest about what he did and take responsibility for his actions. This is the only way we’ll be able to ensure this never happens again.”
The sisters’ identities were shielded by their attorneys, who say the pair fear retribution.
In her claim and statements, the elder sister said the pair fled tyranny in Guatemala and when they crossed the border she understood that arrest and deportation were possible but she believed they would be safe.
But once inside the Texas intake office they were left in a holding cell with the Border Patrol officer, who she said took her to a windowless closet that seemed like a pantry on the night of July 11.
Once there he ordered her to remove her sweater, shirt, tank top and bra; she successfully pleaded to keep her bra but the officer fondled her breasts, the claim alleges.
He let her put her top back on but then ordered her to remove her pants, leggings and underwear; she begged to keep the underwear on, but he pulled down her underwear and touched her genitals with his hands, according to the claim, and she realized it wasn’t a weapons check but a sexual assault.
He returned to the cell and then took her young sister. The 17-year-old, in her claim filed Tuesday, said the officer repeated the conduct with her. As the pair began to cry afterward, the officer attempted to calm them down with chips and chocolates, the elder sister recalled.
“CBP must be held accountable for its officer’s sexual abuse of these vulnerable victims,” said ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Angélica Salceda. “There has been no criminal prosecution against the officer involved. CBP is not above the law, and its abuses of power must not be tolerated.”
A representative of Customs and Border Protection said the agency can’t comment on pending litigation, but added, “We take allegations of misconduct seriously and there is no room in CBP for the mistreatment or misconduct of any kind toward those in our custody.
“We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigation of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty.”
The department has a zero tolerance policy prohibiting all forms of sexual abuse and assault in its custody. The current rules, adopted in 2014, also generally forbid male officers to pat down female detainees.
A 2014 Los Angeles Times investigation found that the vast majority of complaints involving Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border resulted in no disciplinary action. Documents obtained by the Times suggested little accountability for alleged beatings, sexual abuse and other mistreatment of detainees.
The sisters’ claims were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows individuals to sue the federal government and seek monetary damages.
Within an hour of the alleged assaults, the sisters reported the conduct to another CBP officer in the field office where they were held, and an investigation was launched by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.
During the inquiry, the sisters were interviewed twice and asked to draw a depiction of the closet.
ACLU attorneys said federal authorities so far have not pursued criminal charges against the officer and they do not know if any disciplinary action was taken. ACLU officials said they are unsure of the Border Patrol officer’s identity, but the sisters did point him out to other officers when reporting the attacks.
Following the report and initial investigation, the pair were taken to a detention center and eventually released to their mother, who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years. The sisters have undergone counseling for the alleged assaults.
“I have suffered every day from this experience, and it has been extremely hard to sleep at night,” the elder sister said in a statement.
Allegations of sexual misconduct against the Border Patrol aren’t unusual. A 2015 CBS News investigation found that at least 21 Customs and Border Protection officers had been indicted or pleaded guilty to sexual offenses — on and off duty. From 2012 to 2014 more than 35 sexual misconduct cases were pursued against agents, the agency’s former head of internal affairs revealed.
Mitra Ebadolahi, Border Litigation Project staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said, “CBP has a troubling and extensively documented history of human rights abuses at the border.”
5:50 p.m.: This article was updated with a response from Customs and Border Protection.
This article was originally published at 5:45 p.m.