The Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic and Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) jointly filed a lawsuit on August 2 against the federal government on behalf of Neisa Ortega and her 14-year-old daughter after Ortega was subjected to repeated body searches and sexual violations over the course of one year by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers.
As described in the complaint filed in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Ortega was allegedly subjected to illegal and unconstitutional treatment by CBP at Logan Airport in Boston on multiple occasions upon returning from family visits in the Dominican Republic.
The complaint alleges that since April 2019, CBP officers have physically assaulted, degraded, and humiliated Ortega three times despite not finding anything suspicious, let alone criminal, on her person or in her luggage during any of their searches.
According to the lawsuit, during these invasive searches, CBP officers separated Ortega from her daughter for hours, during which neither was given information as to the whereabouts of the other. The experience was traumatizing and dehumanizing for both Ortega and her daughter.
The complaint states that both have been living in fear and haunted by the memories of CBP’s small inspection room, the anxiety and terror they felt when separated from each other, and for Ortega—the trauma of being physically abused and violated.
“The hardest thing for me is realizing that other human beings treated me this way. They could tell I was crying and obviously upset, and still they did not see me as a person—they had no compassion,” Ortega said of her ordeal. “This type of violence, abuse, and humiliation changes you. With all this pain, I am a different person than I was.”
“We are seeing women of color across the country, like Ms. Ortega, bravely standing up to CBP’s disturbing pattern of body searches and demanding that CBP be held accountable for their illegal and unconstitutional behavior,” said Reena Parikh (above), assistant clinical professor and director of the BC Civil Rights Clinic and an attorney also representing the plaintiffs.
Recent BC Law graduate Rebecca Langsam ’21 and student Elizabeth Gooen ’22 were enrolled in the civil rights clinic in spring 2021 and worked with Professor Parikh and LCR to prepare the complaint.
“Neisa’s bravery is tremendously inspiring and I’m grateful to have worked with her in her pursuit of justice,” said Gooen.
“After hearing Neisa’s story, and from assisting her in the litigation process, I know this has not been easy, but this lawsuit is an official step in reclaiming her dignity and in preventing this practice from occurring again,” said Langsam.
Arielle Sharma, an LCR attorney representing the plaintiffs, called the situation an appalling abuse of power. “CBP repeatedly violated and traumatized an innocent woman and her daughter. Far too often women of color are subjected to extra scrutiny and overly intrusive inspection. This discriminatory treatment must end,” she said.
View the Ortega Complaint