In May 2018, a Honduran family of four that was fleeing violence in that country crossed illegally into the United States in the McAllen area and was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents. What the family didn’t realize was that just a month earlier, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had quietly issued an agency memorandum rolling out a new “zero tolerance” policy in which 100 percent of adult migrants entering the country illegally would be prosecuted. Just four days before the Honduran family arrived at the Texas-Mexico border, Sessions publicly announced the policy in a speech in San Diego and declared that if a child was with the parent, “that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally.”
In perhaps its most controversial immigration initiative, the Trump administration followed through almost immediately with the policy of zero tolerance and began separating parents from children. The president bowed to public pressure a month later, in June, and signed an executive order forbidding family separation after thousands of children had been taken. But for this family from Honduras, says a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in McAllen on Monday, it was already too late. The family’s patriarch, Marco Antonio Muñoz, had died of suicide in a padded Starr County jail cell, distraught over being pulled away from his family.
“A full year has passed since the world saw the horrors of family separation and mass prosecutions at the border, but the effects of these violent policies will be forever emblazoned into the lives of the families and individuals caught in the crosshairs of the Administration’s callousness,“ said Efrén Olivares, director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program of the Texas Civil Rights Project, in a written statement. “Unfortunately, Mr. Muñoz lost his life due to these policies but today we begin the long process of seeking justice for his family. We will not rest until the federal government ends the zero-tolerance policy once and for all and all those responsible for his death are held accountable for their actions.”
The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Muñoz’s wife, Orlanda del Carmen Peña Arita, and her two children, listed only by their initials: D.M.A. and C.M.A. “Muñoz died a horrible and preventable death as a result of being forcibly separated from his family by federal agents,” the lawsuit says. It does not specify how much money is being sought, only that the family seeks actual and compensatory damages. Olivares and his cocounsel, John Escamilla of the Escamilla Law Firm, said, to their knowledge, the lawsuit represents the first legal claim of its kind that the federal government’s family-separation and “zero tolerance” policies led to suicide. The defendants in the case are the United States; unknown agents with Customs and Border Protection; Starr County; and two Starr County detention officers.
A CBP official said they cannot comment on pending litigation. Starr County officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Muñoz, his wife, and his three-year-old son—and a second child that was not his but hers—crossed into South Texas near the small town of Granjeño on May 11, 2018, the lawsuit said. After immigration agents arrested the family, they took them to the McAllen Processing Center where they “forcibly” separated Muñoz from his wife and the two children. Muñoz had asked for medical help because his feet were heavily blistered from his trip north—a request that was denied, the lawsuit says. The following day, Muñoz was briefly reunited with his family while all were fingerprinted and processed. Once more, he was separated from his family.
“Mr. Muñoz became visibly distraught and erratic due to the stress of this separation,” the lawsuit says. “CBP agents notified Mr. Muñoz that he would be subject to criminal prosecution for illegal entry into the United States … In response to Mr. Muñoz’s evident and acute anguish, CBP agents briefly allowed Mr. Muñoz to see Plaintiff and D.M.A. again,” the lawsuit says.
Then came a final separation from his family. “When Mr. Muñoz reportedly embraced D.M.A., only three years old at the time, Mr. Muñoz once again became increasingly and visibly distraught, and appeared to suffer the physical and emotional manifestations of a panic attack,” the lawsuit says. “Despite their awareness of Mr. Muñoz’s obvious and apparent severe emotional distress, CBP agents followed through with their determination to separate him from his family, reportedly physically and forcibly prying the boy from Mr. Muñoz’s arms. This caused Mr. Muñoz to become even more emotional and unstable. Plaintiff and D.M.A. watched, horrified, as CBP agents dragged Mr. Muñoz away from them, while Mr. Muñoz yelled and screamed in desperation. After Mr. Muñoz was separated once again from his family, he became more erratic, visibly distressed, and aggressive towards agents.”
Muñoz was placed alone in “a chain link fence cage,” which he began kicking at, the lawsuit says. At that point, immigration agents, “purportedly concerned that he would injure himself or others,” decided to move him to the adjacent Starr County Jail, some forty miles away, and place him in a lockup there. In the transport vehicle, Muñoz continued his erratic behavior, including kicking at the vehicle’s window, the lawsuit says. When they arrived at the jail, Muñoz got into a fight with two detention officers. He was placed in a padded cell equipped with a camera for observation. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which regulates the state’s county jails, mandate that when a person is placed in this type of cell, face-to-face contact must be made at least every thirty minutes to check on the well-being of the detained person, the lawsuit says.
Instead, Muñoz was left unattended long enough that he was able to asphyxiate himself with his long-sleeve shirt, the lawsuit said. Muñoz’s wife and son, along with the woman’s other child, who is a U.S. citizen, remain in the United States awaiting a court hearing on their immigration case.