By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Honduran mother and young son have filed a lawsuit against U.S. authorities, claiming they were mistreated in detention facilities after they entered the country seeking asylum.
The lawsuit, which lawyers say is the first to seek damages by refugees held by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says the "inhumane conditions" were an effort to pressure the pair to abandon their legal claims and to deter other migrants.
Suny Rodriguez, her husband and her son crossed into the United States in 2015 after fleeing Honduras where they feared for their lives, the complaint said.
The mother, 41, and son, 9, were released after four months in detention in Texas when an immigration judge ruled she was likely to be persecuted if she returned to Honduras. They were held separately from the father.
During their detention, they were forced to sleep at times on the floor and with lights on, harassed by staff at night and held in crowded, wet and cold rooms, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Newark, New Jersey. The boy suffers from asthma, it said.
They also were prevented access to lawyers and kept in the dark as to the husband's whereabouts, it said.
The civil lawsuit comes as U.S. authorities struggle to contain a surge of migrants fleeing gang violence in Central America.
The Obama administration announced last month a broad expansion of a programme to let people fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala enter the United States as refugees.
It is the first case to claim damages for treatment by refugees detained by ICE, according to Conchita Cruz, part of the family's legal team at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project at the New York-based Urban Justice Center.
If the case succeeds, "it will send a strong signal to immigration authorities to clean up their act," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University in New York.
Rodriguez fled Honduras after getting threats and physical abuse from police when she questioned the circumstances of the death of her mother, who had been a critic of police, and her stepfather, the complaint said.
"The treatment I received in the detention centres was worse," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not return calls seeking comment. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and ICE said they do not comment on pending litigation.
Lawyers for the family, who are seeking an unspecified amount of money as compensation, filed the lawsuit earlier this week. The family now lives in New Jersey.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)