WIRAC Reaches Major Settlement on Behalf of Asylum-Seeking Family

The Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC) at Yale Law School announced the settlement of one of the first cases in the nation to seek damages against the Department of Homeland Security for their practice of family detention.

Suny Rodriguez Alvarado and her nine-year-old son sued the federal government for abuse, coercion, prolonged detention, and attempted separation that they suffered at the hands of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Filed on August 17, 2016 under the Federal Tort Claims Act in federal district court in New Jersey, the lawsuit settled for $125,000, helping to establish a baseline for other immigrants abused in federal detention centers. WIRAC served as lead counsel on the matter, and worked with co-counsel from the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), Elora Mukherjee ’05 of the Columbia Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, and Gibbons P.C.

After fleeing violence in Honduras, Ms. Rodriguez and her son, then six years old, sought refuge in the United States, undertaking a harrowing journey from Honduras to Texas to apply for asylum. After being apprehended by Customs and Border Protection agents, the two were met with inhumane conditions: a freezing detention facility, deprivation of food and medicine, verbal abuse by agents, and the government’s failure to abide by its legal duty to protect asylum-seekers and minors. In the course of their detention, the government attempted unsuccessfully to separate Ms. Rodriguez from her son. They were ultimately detained for four months before being released. The complaint is available here.

Rodriguez’s story was profiled in a story in the New Yorker on June 15, 2019.

Asked why she decided to file this lawsuit, Ms. Rodriguez stated: “I decided to bring this lawsuit because I wanted to bring to light the injustices against asylum seekers — mothers and fathers who bring their children to the United States in search of safety. What happened to my family should never happen to anyone’s family. I hope that other families will see my case and no longer be scared to stand up and tell the public the truth about what goes on at the border.”

“Ms. Rodriguez has worked tirelessly to advocate alongside and on behalf of immigrants like herself. The success of her lawsuit is a reflection of her powerful spirit and leadership in a social movement demanding accountability at the border,” said Aseem Mehta ’20, a law student intern with WIRAC.

“Ms. Rodriguez showed incredible bravery by bringing this suit,” said WIRAC law student intern Petey Menz ’20. “She fought for years to get redress for the harms that she and her son suffered and to advocate for the rights of asylum-seekers. Today, she has achieved a measure of justice.”

“We are in awe of Ms. Rodriguez’s courage to challenge the mistreatment she and her family faced in detention and at the border,” said ASAP Co-Director, Conchita Cruz ’16. “Her victory has the power to serve as a blueprint for future lawsuits against CBP and ICE, and as a source of inspiration for families who want to hold the government accountable for the trauma, pain and suffering caused by inhumane immigration and border policies.” Cruz, Swapna Reddy ’16, Dorothy Tegeler ’16, and Liz Willis ’17 all worked on the case as law students in WIRAC, and then went on to launch ASAP upon their graduation.

“The victory of Ms. Rodriguez and her son serves as a critical reminder,” said Columbia Law School Professor Elora Mukherjee. “The U.S. government must uphold its basic legal obligation to treat all immigrant families and children with dignity and respect, as required by both domestic and international law. When the government fails to do so, it will literally pay for the consequences.”

“It has been an honor to represent Ms. Rodriguez and to work alongside the attorneys from ASAP and law students and faculty from Yale and Columbia Law Schools, who are so committed to the cause of social justice at this particularly challenging time in history,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg, the Director of the John J. Gibbons Fellowship in Public Interest and Constitutional Law. “It is only with such courageous clients and committed advocates that the rule of law can prevail and justice can be achieved in cases like this one.”

The Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, a part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale School, represents immigrants, low-wage workers, and their organizations in labor, immigration, civil rights, and other matters.