When Yazmin Juarez arrived at the U.S. border with her 19-month-old daughter Mariee, she sought a safe place with a safe future.
Instead, she spent weeks in a detention facility and lost her baby daughter. She claims the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t provide her any medical care when she asked for it, which led to Mariee’s death.
Juarez came from Guatemala to seek asylum in the U.S. She says Mariee started showing symptoms of a respiratory illness after ICE detained them, but when she repeatedly asked for medical care over the three weeks when they were in custody, ICE denied help. They cleared Juarez and her daughter for travel without even looking at the baby. When she was finally released, she took her daughter to New Jersey, where her mother lived, and together they went to the hospital.
Mariee died at the hospital, a few months before her second birthday.
With the help of a lawyer, Juarez is now suing the city that operates the detention center, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE, seeking compensation for the damages of losing her daughter and for the agencies’ lack of due diligence. The suit claims wrongful death — essentially, that Mariee would have been alive if not for a lack of duty done by the agencies detaining her and her mother.
Sadly, this isn’t a unique story — as the number of people detained by the U.S. Border Patrol and ICE increases and more people try to cross the border, the number of deaths is going up. Increasing attention is being brought to the poor conditions in facilities at the border, but no family that loses a loved one in detention deserves to go without justice.
What is wrongful death?
Juarez is suing the government for wrongful death, but it’s hard to know what the definition of that is. Cornell Law School defines it as a civil action brought against someone who can be held liable for a death, leaving immediate family behind that suffers as a result of the death. Wrongful death cases are most common in cases of negligence, and damages can be calculated based on the loss of financial, emotional, and other support the victim provided to the household.
Depending on the case, wrongful death can be filed in conjunction with a criminal case. These cases are brought against the defendant by the state, and can be argued based on negligence, intention or premeditated murder. The civil case, on the other hand, is filed by the victim’s family and goes through an entirely separate proceeding. These can be complicated, multifaceted cases, with the court investigating the filer’s relationship with the victim and questioning the reason for the relief.
In the case of deaths on the border, families may be disconnected from their loved ones who die in U.S. custody. In recent weeks, investigations have turned up documents from the Border Patrol reporting outbreaks of flu, chicken pox, measles and mumps in detention facilities. On July 5, a 52-year-old Nicaraguan man was pronounced dead after he “fell into medical distress” at a Border Patrol facility in Tucson, Arizona.
Investigators have said they witnessed unsanitary conditions that made things worse at these facilities. Children are sleeping on the floor, and mothers are feeding babies from unwashed bottles. The Border Patrol has promised more medical support in response to public outcry.
But other cases of wrongful death have come before the U.S. courts from immigrants, too. In May, the family of Claudia Gonzalez sued the Border Patrol for the wrongful death of their daughter, who was shot while walking with friends near the Rio Grande in Texas. An early report from the Border Patrol described Claudia as attacking the officers with blunt instruments with her friend; the agency later retracted that report and made no mention of Claudia allegedly attacking the officers.
How can immigrants sue the government?
If you listen to the rhetoric from the government and sometimes from the public, you might think that undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers have no right to seek justice through the American legal system. They’re wrong!
Many immigrants have sued the government for instances of injustice, many of them successfully. Courts have recognized that immigrants seeking citizenship and asylum in this country should have rights, and Congress has passed a number of laws to support people’s rights to sue the government. In the case of wrongful death lawsuits, the applicable law is the Federal Tort Claims Act.
In short, the law says that a federal employee acting in his or her official capacity isn’t liable for his or her actions — the federal government is. To file a suit, a plaintiff has to file an administrative claim with the federal government, which by law has to be resolved within six months or the plaintiff can go to federal court. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas helped Gonzalez’s parents file the administrative claim and would help them work through the suit to come.
If you’ve lost a loved one due to negligence by the U.S. government or believe a loved one has wrongfully died while in U.S. government custody, you may have a claim. It’s hard to navigate the process, especially while grieving, but a lawyer can help you work through the complicated paperwork and court proceedings.
In cases like Gonzalez’s, the family is seeking monetary compensation, but they’re also seeking punitive damages so something like what happened to their daughter won’t happen again. That’s the kind of justice a court can provide.