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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Family of two young U.S. citizens awarded over $1.5 million for being falsely imprisoned by border patrol

A federal judge in San Diego found that the U.S. government violated the constitutional rights of two children who were detained for up to 34 hours at the U.S.-Mexico border.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal judge in California ruled that U.S. government violated the rights of two children by detaining them for hours when they tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to go to school.

Oscar Amparo Medina and his sister Julia Isabel Amparo were 14 and nine years old, respectively, in March 2019 when they were stopped at the Tijuana-San Ysidro, California, border crossing while heading to school in San Ysidro. 

Law enforcement officers suspected the nine and 14-year-old of lying about their identities and thought the older child could have been trafficking the younger.

“Common sense and ordinary human experience indicate that it was not reasonable to detain Julia for 34 hours to determine her identity or to detain Oscar for about 14 hours to determine whether he was smuggling or trafficking his sister when multiple means of investigation were available and officers unreasonably failed to pursue them,” U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of California Gonzalo Curiel, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in his order Friday. 

The normally routine procedure of crossing the border turned Kafkaesque when a border patrol officer claimed the girl depicted in her passport photo was different than the child in front of them, because the picture showed either a “mole,” as the government described it, or a “dot,” as the defense described it, on the child’s face that was not visible when she showed up to the border crossing. 

The two U.S. citizens were then taken to a secondary inspection area where Julia was interrogated by a border patrol officer named Willmy Lara, who was not named as a defendant in the case. The Amparo Medina family claimed Lara, an officer “known for getting confessions” coerced Julia into saying she was her own cousin, Melany. The government claimed that Julia and Oscar came up with the idea to lie about Julia’s identity themselves.   

The government didn’t offer a coherent explanation for their argument, Curiel said, but whatever happened can’t be known for sure, since Lara conducted the interview with a minor alone, without a witness or a recording of the incident, in violation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy. 

Because of that, Julia produced a false confession, Curiel wrote.        

“Julia started by stating that she was Julia, but at some point, under the influence and pressure from an intense officer known for getting confessions, she agreed that she was actually Melany,” Curiel wrote. “Having two officers in an interview is meant as a check on the pressure exerted by the officers, and that check failed.”

The children were then driven to another facility and placed in different holding cells, where Oscar said he was told he would be arrested and charged with human and organ trafficking if he didn’t admit that his sister was actually his cousin.

After hours of interrogations and intimidation and promises he would be released if he signed a confession, Oscar agreed to the false statement, his family claimed, after which he was released from custody. 

Officers then showed his sister his false statement, after which Julia falsely confessed to being her cousin. However, unlike her brother, she was kept in custody. 

“Although reasonable suspicion may have existed initially to believe that Julia was making a false claim of citizenship by fraudulently using the passport card of another, the duration of her and Oscar’s detention was unreasonable and in violation of the Fourth Amendment because officers repeatedly failed to take available steps to investigate their suspicions and failed to follow CBP’s own policies and precautions regarding the treatment of detained minors,” Curiel wrote. 

Curiel also found that the U.S. government falsely imprisoned Julia and Oscar in violation of the Fifth Amendment, and that the federal government intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the children. 

“Ultimately, CBP officers failed to pursue the available investigative opportunities which would have reduced the period of detention for the children substantially. After eliciting the false confession, CBP officers detained the children with no further investigation for over five hours and continued to detain them when their mother came to the port of entry with their birth certificates and social security cards,” Curiel wrote. 

After the incident, Julia and her brother saw therapists for the emotional distress they suffered. 

During the bench trial in March, the children’s mom, Thelma, testified that in 2021 Julia was put under anesthesia during surgery, during which Julia was screaming that she was Julia, not Melaney. 

Thelma added that she continues to fear for her children when they cross the border.  

“The severity of the officers’ conduct is exacerbated by the fact that they were in positions of power and authority over plaintiffs,” Curiel wrote. “The court therefore concludes that the United States’ conduct was extreme and outrageous.” 

“No reasonable person should be expected to endure the distress suffered by plaintiffs,” Curiel added.

Curiel awarded $1.1 million in damages for Julia, $175,000 for Oscar, and $250,000 for Thelma. 

“Judge Curiel’s verdict is a powerful statement that CBP officers must follow the rules just like everyone else, especially when it comes to the treatment of children,” Joseph McMullen, the family's attorney, said in an email. 

Categories / Government, Immigration, Regional

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