By NOMAAN MERCHANT, Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — A new lawsuit blames the Trump administration’s family separations for the death by suicide of a Honduran father after being separated from his 3-year-old child.
The widow of Marco Antonio Muñoz sued the U.S. government and South Texas’ Starr County, which operated the local jail where he died. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which announced the lawsuit Monday, said it was the first known lawsuit that linked a person’s suicide to the zero-tolerance policy enacted last spring and ended amid worldwide condemnation.
Muñoz, 39, was found unresponsive in his jail cell on the morning of May 13, 2018. Two days earlier, the lawsuit alleges, Muñoz had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas without authorization along with his wife, Orlanda del Carmen Peña Arita, and their child, who was then 3.
At the time, border agents were charging parents with illegally entering the U.S. under a directive from top administration officials targeting unauthorized migration. In the more than a year since President Donald Trump rescinded the directive, stories have emerged of agents pulling apart crying parents and children. Some parents have alleged agents lied to them or had them sign forms they couldn’t understand.
Hundreds of parents were eventually deported without their children, who were then taken to government holding facilities intended for minors who arrived in the U.S. alone. Other parents who got their children back have reported mental trauma and in some cases sexual or physical abuse.
The U.S. government already faces at least 38 legal claims from parents who say their children were harmed while in government custody. The claims demand more than $200 million in damages.
The lawsuit alleges Muñoz “yelled and screamed in desperation” as he was “dragged” away from his wife and child inside the Border Patrol’s processing center in McAllen, Texas. Muñoz “began to shake and kick” at the chain-link fencing of the pen where he was held separately, the lawsuit says.
The disruption led border agents to transfer Muñoz to the Starr County jail, roughly 40 miles (64 kilometers) away. After his death, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a statement saying he was transferred because he had become “disruptive and combative.” CBP declined to comment Monday, citing the pending litigation, which was filed in federal court in McAllen.
The lawsuit says Muñoz, still distressed about the separation, ended up in an altercation with two Starr detention officers before he was placed in a padded cell. Based on his behavior, the lawsuit alleges, Starr County would have known Muñoz was “assaultive” and “potentially suicidal.”
An incident report Starr County filed with the Texas attorney general’s office in June says that officers checked on him every 30 minutes and at least once more during the morning shift before they eventually found him unresponsive on the floor.
The lawsuit alleges Starr County “failed to have face-to-face interactions” every 30 minutes.
Starr County Sheriff Rene Fuentes and other officials did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
The American Civil Liberties Union has documented more than 900 cases of family separation since zero tolerance ended and a judge ordered the reunification of families in June 2018. The ACLU alleges the Trump administration has separated parents and children over dubious allegations of neglect or fraud and minor transgressions, including one parent who had damaged property valued at $5 and another parent accused of letting his daughter sleep with a wet diaper.
“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,” said Efrén Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, in a statement.