The Salvadoran woman had not eaten for two days and was feeling faint as her multiple ailments worsened. After she was taken to a detention center where she was kept in a frigid cell known as a hielera (icebox), Quiñonez collapsed and was taken to a hospital.
Now, three years later, Quiñonez, 28, is free and seeking asylum in the United States after Miami-based lawyers from Americans for Immigrant Justice and the law firm of Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzeli and Pratt, P.A. won her case.
“It’s important for cases like mine to be publicized because the traumatic situation experienced in the hielera cells must be known,” Quiñonez said in a telephone interview. “It’s not only adults held in these cells, but also children because I saw them there.”
The lawyers said the case, one of the first involving hieleras to reach federal courts, should force immigration authorities to treat immigrants better.
“When immigrants fleeing persecution manage to reach our border, an encounter with Border Patrol officials is generally their first impression of the United States,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice. “And rather than being treated fairly and humanely, they are traumatized again when detained in the hieleras.”
The Quiñonez immigration saga began in February 2013 when she fled El Salvador and made her way to Texas. She was stopped by the Border Patrol near Falfurrias and taken to the hielera cell in a detention center.
Some immigration attorneys and immigrant rights activists accuse immigration authorities of deliberately running air conditioning at a high level in those cells to make the detainees feel uncomfortable. Immigration officials deny the accusation.
When Quiñonez arrived at the detention center, she encountered her first unpleasant surprise.
The officer who received her grabbed most of the medicines she was carrying to treat her numerous health conditions — hypertension, cardiac problems, depression, anxiety and diabetes — and threw them in the trash.
When Quiñonez complained, the officer replied “this is not a hospital,” according to court documents in the case.
Within a day of the incident, Quiñonez collapsed in her frigid cell and had to be transported to a local hospital, according to a statement from her attorneys.
The statement said the hieleras, besides being kept at low temperatures, are maintained in “deplorable” conditions.
“Ms. Quiñonez, like thousands of other immigrants detained by [Customs and Border Protection] every year, was held for several days in frigid, dirty, overcrowded holding cells and denied access to proper medical care, adequate meals, clean drinking water, and basic hygiene products,” the statement said.
Eventually, attorneys who represent immigrants in detention spoke to Quiñonez and took her case.
They sued in federal court in New York, where Quiñonez lives, and won a settlement for her.
“AI Justice obtained a substantial monetary settlement of $80,000 on behalf of Ms. Quiñonez to compensate for the damages suffered during her time in CBP custody,” the statement said.
The lawsuit also resulted in two significant rulings.
One was a landmark ruling by U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein that foreign nationals paroled into the United States and who are seeking asylum can have their cases heard where they reside.
The judge also denied the government’s contention that the case should be transferred to Texas, rejecting the argument that the case should be tried where Quiñonez was detained and where the events occurred.
“In addition to the settlement, the two district court decisions established the important precedent that even if a person is not a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident she has the right to bring a lawsuit against the government where she resides,” said Ira Kurzban, a Miami immigration attorney who helped litigate the case. “In Alba’s case, this meant she could bring the suit in New York where she resided and not be forced to litigate a case in Texas where she could not afford to travel or obtain legal counsel.”
Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @AlfonsoChardy