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Three people who arrived at O’Hare International Airport with valid travel documents and were subject to intimidation, discriminatory treatment, and unjust detention by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers have filed a federal civil rights complaint demanding an investigation into the agency’s abusive actions and its basis for denying their entry to the United States.

The individuals arrived in the United States with valid visas in hand and plans to visit family, partners, and friends in compliance with those visas. But CBP officers sent them to an escalated inspection point known as “secondary screening,” where officers searched their electronic devices, collected their biometrics, placed them in expedited removal proceedings, revoked their visas, and sent them to immigration detention at McHenry County Jail in Illinois. One of the individuals, after spending two painful weeks in detention, asked to be deported.

The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is representing the individuals in the complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

“This complaint addresses a pattern of abuse, which has become particularly apparent at O’Hare since early 2021, in which CBP officials wrongfully deny entry to individuals with valid visas and violate the agency’s policies regarding the treatment of those in their custody, including the use of intimidation and discriminatory treatment,” said Aneesha Gandhi, associate director of protection-based relief overseeing NIJC’s LGBT and Asylum Projects. “The individuals who share their stories in this complaint describe the fear and trauma they continue to experience as a result of the interrogations they endured at secondary inspection and subsequent unjust ICE detention. This harm also is part of a broader pattern rooted in the culture of abuse and discrimination that has long been documented within CBP.”

These individuals’ experiences reflect a pattern of mistreatment that became apparent over the course of interviews NIJC staff have conducted since January 2021 with more than 40 people who were subject to unjust secondary inspection procedures. Many of the individuals interviewed felt discriminated against and unjustly targeted by CBP officials in the process. One individual had a CBP agent tell them that the reason they were sent to secondary screening was because of their country of origin. Some were placed in handcuffs and chains, unable to drink water, and placed into solitary confinement after being sent to ICE detention. While in secondary inspection, people commonly were forced to turn over their electronic devices and, in at least one instance, was unknowingly subject to a DNA sample via cheek swab.

The individuals who filed the complaint are:

  • Maria (she/her), who arrived at O’Hare in October 2021 using a tourist visa that was still valid for four more years. She had plans to visit her parents in Illinois and then return to her home in Mexico. She had entered on multiple prior occasions without incident, but rather than granting her entry, CBP officials interrogated her, detained her overnight, accused her of lying, and found her inadmissible without any justification. After noticing bruises on Maria’s face that were the result of an attack by an abusive boyfriend a few days prior, officers used the injuries to escalate their interrogation and accuse her of lying. They failed to provide Maria any care for her injuries, leaving her alone overnight in a CBP detention cell and then sending her to immigration detention at a jail in McHenry County, Illinois. Maria was released on immigration parole after spending about a month in detention.

    “People like me that come with tourist visas just want to come to the U.S., be with our families, and spend a little money that we make with a lot of sacrifice in Mexico,” Maria stated in her civil rights complaint. “I’d like officers to be more human and less racist in their interviewing.”
  • Tahiri (he/him), a doctor for a Mexican governmental agency, who arrived at O’Hare in February 2021 with a valid visa and plans to enjoy a visit with family in Michigan. Instead, CBP officers accused him of lying, searched his devices, held him overnight, denied him entry, and sent him to immigration detention. Even though he could easily provide evidence that he was gainfully employed in Mexico, the CBP officers’ interrogation escalated after they searched Tahiri’s phone and found a joke in a text thread they chose to contrive as evidence that he intended to work in a U.S. restaurant. After spending two weeks in immigration detention in McHenry County, Tahiri asked to be deported. In his complaint, Tahiri asks the civil rights office to recommend that DHS rescind his removal order as well as any bars to entering the United States again in the future.

    “They didn’t believe a word I said from the start, even though I could have provided proof,” Tahiri stated in his civil rights complaint. “They made up a story in their heads, and nothing was going to contradict that. I wish I could get my visa back because it pains me when my family travels to the U.S. for birthdays and holidays, and I can’t go. But if nothing changes, at the very least, I hope the officers stop mistreating people like me.”
  • Gabrielle (they/them), who arrived at O’Hare with a valid tourist visa in December 2021, following a trip to Europe. Gabrielle planned to visit their boyfriend and parents and leave the United States within a month. Gabrielle had visited the United States before without any problems, but on this trip was subjected to secondary screening and pressured to sign forms they did not fully understand. When, during questioning, Gabrielle expressed they were fearful of returning to their native country of Honduras, CBP officers placed them into asylum proceedings and sent them to immigration detention in McHenry County. Gabrielle was detained for five days before being released on parole.

    “My experience at O'Hare and then in detention has negatively affected my life,” Gabrielle stated in their civil rights complaint. “I suffer from anxiety and this experience has only made it worse. I feel like the immigration officers at the airport don't care how their actions and behavior could change the course of people's lives.”