Family Said They Were Arrested After Accidentally Crossing Canadian Border — but Government Says It was 'Deliberate'

Adam Carlson

A vivid and wrenching account of a U.K. family’s detainment in the U.S. — which they called the “scariest experience of our entire lives” — is being disputed by government officials after the family’s story made international headlines.

While the family reportedly said they had accidentally crossed into the U.S. while on vacation in Vancouver, veering from their intended path to avoid an animal in the road, border and immigration officials now say otherwise.

Video recorded the family “slowly and deliberately driving through a ditch” from British Columbia into Lynden, Washington, late on Oct. 2, leading to their arrest, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

What’s more, two of the four adults in the group of seven U.K. citizens (including three children), had previously been “denied travel authorization” into the U.S., the CBP spokesperson said. The spokesperson did not elaborate.

CBP also said that “attempts were made to return the individuals to Canada, however, Canada refused to allow their return.”

This much, at least, is clear: David and Eileen Connors were kept in custody along with their family for more than week after being detained at the Canadian border in early October. It appears they remained in custody as of Wednesday pending their deportation to the U.K.

“We will never forget, we will be traumatized for the rest of our lives by what the United States government has done to us. We have been treated like criminals here, stripped of our rights, and lied to,” Eileen, 24, wrote in a sworn statement made available to reporters by her legal advocates, according to the Washington Post.

(The family’s account is based on their statement and information from their lawyer as reported by the Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Philadelphia Inquirer.)

According to a local immigration law clinic and the family’s lawyer, who reportedly briefed the press on Monday and provided their statement, the family was vacationing in Canada on Oct. 3 — a day later than the illegal border crossing described by the government — when they inadvertently drove over the boundary between the U.S. and Canada in order to avoid an animal in the road.

It’s unclear what kind of animal may have spooked them.

Arrests at the Canadian border, even if the crossings are incidental to something as benign as a routine jog, are not unheard of, the Post notes. Last year more than 4,000 people were arrested at the northern border, according to the New York Times.

“They had no idea they had crossed any boundary,” attorney Bridget Cambria told reporters on a conference call. “They had no idea they were even in the United States. They were just trying to get back to their hotel.”

“You crossed an international border,” Eileen Connors said in her statement that her family was told.

“We asked if we couldn’t simply turn around and the officer said no,” Eileen said. “We kept repeating we did not want to be here. We were detained anyway and treated in a way that no human deserves to be treated.”

“I’m aware of no rhyme or reason for how this family was treated — no history of things untoward,” Cambria, their attorney, told reporters. “We’re aware of no negative or derogatory information at all; this was couple that was on a family vacation with their young child.”

Eileen said that while they were almost immediately taken into custody, the Connorses were not read their rights or given the opportunity to contact their embassy, while later contact with the embassy was met with interference.

Not exactly, according to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, who took custody of the family on Oct. 3 after their arrest by CBP: ICE officials said they “ensured the Connors had access to … consular officials while in ICE custody.”

At the time of their arrest, Eileen and 30-year-old her husband, David, were with their 3-month-old, a boy, along with David’s brother Michael Connors and Michael’s 2-year-old twins.

The Connors family detailed wretched conditions for their detainment, including their longest stay at a Pennsylvania family facility, echoing numerous other stories about the degrading and harsh treatment of people being held in the immigration system.

ICE, however, stridently denied the Connors account of their time at the Pennsylvania facility, which has been criticized before. Nonetheless, ICE officials said in a statement: “Reports of abuse or inhumane conditions … are unequivocally false.”

That first night after they were detained, Eileen said, the family was placed in a detention facility near the border in Washington: David was put with a male-only population while Eileen and their son were put in a “a very cold cell.”

The floor was “disgusting,” Eileen said. The blankets provided to them were “metal-like” and “thin.” The meal of noodles that David got, he said, was “not even apt for animals.”

“The officers left us in the cell the entire day, with no information, no call to our family back home, no idea when we would be free to leave,” Eileen said.

But that was only the beginning, according to the family: Though they told immigration officials they had a relative who was an American citizen who could sponsor them, as required, they were instead ultimately moved to the Seattle airport and flown to a detention facility in Pennsylvania that critics call a “baby jail.”

Activists have pushed to close Berks, arguing it is the site of “human rights abuses” and “the immoral and unjust treatment of immigrant families.”

More than week after what the family described as their initial mistake, David and Eileen are still in custody at the Berks Family Residential Center in Reading, according to ICE.

Cambria said David’s cousin and the cousin’s toddlers were also taken to Berks.

“I don’t believe that it’s suitable for children that young because newborns probably shouldn’t be around a hundred other kids all of whom are coming from different parts of the world,” Cambria said.

She continued: “There were a lot silly decisions made along the way. In this instance, when you’re talking about a 3-month-old, those silly decisions can be really dangerous.”

At Berks, Eileen bathed her son in a “filthy dirty” child bathtub with “broken bits,” she said in her statement. At one point he had no clothes while they were being washed.

“The blankets and sheets in our room have a disgusting smell, like a dead dog,” she said. “I cannot use them to wrap up my baby for fear they haven’t been washed properly and my baby will become sick.” (The Connors’ infant baby, according to his parents, has not had all of his immunizations.)

“When I ask how am I supposed to keep my baby warm in this horrible cold, all they tell me is to put a hat on him. … They even took away one of his formula containers, which I had to beg for three days for them to return it to me,” she said.

Late last week, her son awoke “with his left eye swollen and teary,” she said. His skin was “rough and blotchy.”

Eileen also said that immigration officials interfered in their ability to contact or be contacted by embassy staff in the U.K., though once the embassy did become involve conditions improved somewhat.

“This would never happen in the United Kingdom to U.S. citizens or anyone else,” Eileen said of her experience in custody in America, “because people there are treated with dignity.”

A spokesperson for the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office said only, “We are providing assistance to a British family after they were taken into custody in the USA and are in close contact with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” (Canadian immigration officials could not immediately be reached about the Connors’ case.)

Cambria, their attorney, did not return a call and emails seeking comment over two days; neither did officials with Aldea – The People’s Justice Center, which is assisting the family.

• With reporting by PHIL BOUCHER