ESTANCIA, NM - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico and the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) today filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine asylum-seekers formerly detained at the Torrance County Detention Facility as well as the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a non-profit that advocates for immigrants and refugees detained in New Mexico. The lawsuit alleges that CoreCivic violated the individual plaintiffs' rights to be free from excessive or arbitrary force when guards employed by the private company sprayed them with chemical agents for engaging in a peaceful hunger strike protesting inadequate precautions against COVID-19, poor living conditions, and the withholding of status updates on their immigration cases. It also alleges Torrance County failed in its duty to care for the people detained in the facility.
“Our clients, who came to the United States seeking safety from persecution, were peacefully demonstrating against dismal living conditions and treatment,” said Nadia Cabrera-Mazzeo, staff attorney at ACLU of New Mexico. “Rather than treating them with dignity and compassion, guards chose to spray them with chemical agents and subject them to further trauma. This gross abuse of power represents everything that is wrong with our immigration system and in need of urgent change.”
On May 11, 2020, the nine individual plaintiffs began a peaceful hunger strike over the conditions at the facility. On May 14, after the plaintiffs refused to halt their peaceful protest, 18 CoreCivic guards, equipped with shields, gas masks, and Personal Protective Equipment, deployed multiple spray canisters and grenades of OC spray in a poorly ventilated space and confined them there by blocking the exits. As the room filled with the pepper spray, the plaintiffs began to cough, tear up, and gasp for oxygen. Some people lost consciousness. Following the attack, CoreCivic staff failed to properly decontaminate the plaintiffs or provide them with medical care, causing them harm for days. Several of the individual plaintiffs contracted COVID-19 and tested positive within days of the chemical attack. Two of the plaintiffs, who have a history of mental illness, attempted suicide in the aftermath of the incident.
“Spraying asylum-seekers held in civil detention with chemical agents when they pose no threat to anyone is unconscionable,” said Jasmine McGee, Managing Attorney at NMILC. “These actions, which were clearly retaliatory and intended to inflict harm, cannot go unanswered. We will do everything in our power to seek justice for our clients.”
The lawsuit, filed on the one-year anniversary of the attack, seeks a declaration that it was unlawful to subject detainees to arbitrary use of force by deploying chemical agents, damages for injury, and an injunction prohibiting the arbitrary use of chemical agents at Torrance County Detention Facility.
“Every day, we advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our state, including asylum seekers like those pepper sprayed at Torrance County Detention Facility last year,” said Analía Rodríguez, executive director at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. “We’ve joined this lawsuit as an organizational plaintiff to stop CoreCivic from further harming those in our community who need our protection the most.”
A copy of the complaint is available here. Please contact Katie Hoeppner for footage of the incident.