A British family that was detained in federal immigration custody with their 3-month-old baby say they endured “disgusting” and frigid conditions for two weeks after accidentally driving across the Canadian border into the United States. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are refuting their story, accusing the family of “deliberately” attempting to enter the country illegally.
“We will never forget, we will be traumatized for the rest of our lives by what the United States government has done to us,” Eileen Connors, 24, wrote in an affidavit released by an immigration legal services center in Pennsylvania, where the family was most recently detained. Connors said she and her family were “treated like criminals” in cold and unsanitary U.S. immigration facilities.
Attorneys at Aldea-The People’s Justice Center, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to immigrants, were representing the Connors family and said they learned Wednesday morning that the family had been deported back to the United Kingdom, but had no further information.
In her affidavit, Connors said she, her husband and their infant had been visiting Vancouver with extended family members and had not intended to visit the United States that evening. But while driving near the border, she says the family swerved to avoid an animal and drove onto an unmarked road without realizing they were crossing into the U.S.
However, CBP said in a statement that video surveillance captured a vehicle “slowly and deliberately driving through a ditch” and entering the United States illegally in Blaine, Wash., on Oct. 2 around 9 p.m. A Border Patrol agent pulled the vehicle over shortly thereafter and arrested the seven occupants—four adults, the baby and 2-year-old twins, all United Kingdom citizens.
“During processing, record checks revealed two of the adults were previously denied travel authorization to come to the United States,” the CBP statement said. “Attempts were made to return the individuals to Canada, however, Canada refused to allow their return and two attempts to contact the United Kingdom consulate were unsuccessful.”
But the family’s attorneys pushed back on the CBP statement.
“We are not surprised that the agency would put the character of non-citizen victims of their misconduct and neglect into question to justify their actions,” a spokesperson for Aldea -The People’s Justice Center said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “However, their communication in no way contradicts the family’s account that for a brief moment they turned into an unmarked road on United States soil.”
“We find no other part of [CBP’s] statement to be relevant,” the Aldea statement said. “There is nothing that justifies the imprisonment of babies and toddlers, for any period of time.”
Bridget Cambria, an attorney at Aldea, filed a formal complaint on behalf of the family with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general and civil rights office.
“Emotionally and psychologically, they’re destroyed,” Cambria told the Washington Post. “They’re very upset about what’s happened to them because it doesn’t make sense. Anyone that reads their statement or hears their story will not understand how this could’ve possibly happened.”
In her statement, Connors described the ordeal as “the scariest experience of our entire lives.” She said she had to sleep with her infant on the “disgusting floor” of a cold cell the first night of her detention. They were later taken to a Red Roof Inn in Seattle, and were eventually flown to a detention center in Pennsylvania.
A CBP spokesperson directed further questions about the family’s detention to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
ICE officials confirmed that Eileen and David Connors had been transferred to the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pa., describing the facility as “a safe and humane environment” with an “outstanding track record.”
“ICE has ensured the Connors have had access to United Kingdom (U.K.) consular officials while in ICE custody,” the agency said in a statement. “For operational security, ICE does not discuss specific removal arrangements prior to an individual’s successful repatriation.”
But the facility has faced allegations of health and human rights abuses in the past. In 2016, more than 20 mothers detained at the center went on a two-week hunger strike because of the way their children had been affected by more than a year in detention, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Protesters have since called for the center to be shut down.
In her complaint, Eileen Connors described the facility as frigid, and the bathrooms as “dirty and broken.” She also said her infant suffered a swollen eye and rough, patchy skin during detention.
“We wish to tell our story so that babies and young children are never again treated this way,” Connors wrote. “We are so sickened by all of this. The idea and the memory of our little baby having to sleep on a dirty floor of a cell will haunt us forever. We are in disbelief that a government would do this to human beings.”