ESTANCIA, N.M. (KRQE) – Lawyers representing asylum-seekers from Cuba and Guatemala have reached an agreement with prison operator CoreCivic after allegations that guards used pepper spray without justification. The asylum-seekers and their supporters say the pepper spray was used during a peaceful protest.
The event was captured on camera in 2020 at the Torrance County Detention Facility. Asylum-seekers were on a hunger strike, protesting their living conditions, concerns over COVID-19 protections, and an alleged lack of updates on their immigration statuses, according to the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico (ACLU-NM). Video of the event shows multiple guards standing behind a wall and firing pepper spray at the detainees. Guards also toss pepper grenades into the detainees’ area after seemingly blocking off exits.
ACLU-NM and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project helped nine of the detainees bring a lawsuit against CoreCivic in 2021. In the civil lawsuit, the detainees and their representatives argued that some of the detainees sprayed were asthmatic.
CoreCivic and those bringing the lawsuit have agreed to settle the matter before it went to trial. It’s not clear how settling may have impacted the asylum-seekers. KRQE News 13 asked ACLU-NM if any of them have received asylum. ACLU-NM said they could not tell us. Court documents suggest that at least five of the asylum-seekers may have been deported to Cuba or Guatemala.
“Everyone who comes to the U.S. seeking asylum should get to do so in the communities here that are ready to receive them in safety where they can access supportive services and go about pursuing protection,” Rebecca Sheff, a senior staff attorney at ACLU-NM told KRQE News 13. “That’s not what happened to our clients here.” And despite settling the lawsuit over this specific matter, ACLU-NM continues to call for the Torrance County Detention Facility to be shut down.
As part of the settlement, CoreCivic admits no wrongdoing. KRQE News 13 reached out to CoreCivic, but they did not offer any additional comments besides the joint statement below:
“The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM), the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC), and Montgomery & Andrews, P.A., litigated a case in the Seventh Judicial District on behalf of nine individual Plaintiffs and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. The lawsuit alleged that the individual Plaintiffs—nine asylum-seekers from Cuba and Guatemala—were subject to arbitrary and excessive force by CoreCivic personnel at the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, New Mexico, when they were pepper-sprayed in their housing unit in May 2020. CoreCivic denies all allegations of wrongdoing and asserts that facility staff acted reasonably under the circumstances. The lawsuit that was filed has now been resolved.”-Joint statement agreed upon in settlement