The vacationing family says this was the moment their trip turned into “the scariest experience of our lives,” according to a complaint filed Friday to the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead of being allowed to return to Canada or the U.K., Eileen Connors alleges that her entire family, including her 3-month-old son, ended up detained at the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pa., where they spent more than a week living in “frigid” and “filthy” conditions. In a statement Wednesday, Bridget Cambria, the Connorses’ lawyer, told The Washington Post that the British family was removed to the U.K.
“We will never forget, we will be traumatized for the rest of our lives by what the United States government has done to us,” Connors wrote in a sworn statement, later adding, “We have been treated like criminals here, stripped of our rights, and lied to. … It is undoubtedly the worst experience we have ever lived through.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Tuesday that the British family was arrested for making what U.S. agents believe was a deliberate attempt to enter the United States illegally from Canada.
U.S. authorities disputed the family’s version of events, saying they were spotted via video surveillance at approximately 9 p.m. “slowly and deliberately driving through a ditch onto Boundary Road in Lynden, Washington” between parallel roadways on the U.S. and Canadian sides. The roads are not connected by cross streets, and the only legal way to traverse between the countries is at staffed border stations throughout the region.
On Wednesday evening, CBP released video of the family’s crossing, describing the footage as showing them “slowly and deliberately driving through a ditch to illegally enter the U.S.”
Cambria argued in an email Wednesday to The Post that the video did not contradict the family’s account. She said that the clip “further demonstrates an inability to distinguish each boundary, aside from CBP labeling each country on the footage. The road is unmarked and it’s dark.”
“Whatever this video aims to show, it does not justify CBP placing a 3 month old in life-threatening conditions,” Cambria wrote. “The families wanted to return to their country immediately at apprehension, and had the means to do so. CBP should not have burdened our immigration system and placed children’s lives at risk for any reason whatsoever.”
In a statement, CBP said U.S. agents also determined that two of the family members had applied for travel authorization to visit the United States and were denied. A senior CBP official said the Connorses applied for visa waivers last year, and it was not immediately clear why they were rejected. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the case, said the family — four adults and three small children — were in possession of $16,000 in cash at the time of their arrest.
“Attempts were made to return the individuals to Canada, however, Canada refused to allow their return and two attempts to contact the United Kingdom consulate were unsuccessful,” the CBP statement read. Because Canada refused to admit the family, CBP was required by law to turn the family members over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A spokesperson with the U.K.'s Foreign & Commonwealth Office told The Post Tuesday that the agency is “providing assistance to a British family after they were taken into custody in the USA and are in close contact with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
ICE officials confirmed in a statement to The Post on Tuesday that the family is being held at the Leesport facility, but disputed their claims of mistreatment. The center, the statement said, “provides a safe and humane environment for families as they go through the immigration process.” Officials said CBP transferred the family into ICE custody on Oct. 3 to be processed as expedited removals.
“Reports of abuse or inhumane conditions at BFRC are unequivocally false,” officials said.
Connors, however, alleges that the mistreatment began shortly after her family was stopped by the American officer.
Even before the tourists could explain why they were on the road, Connors, 24, wrote that her 30-year-old husband David and his cousin, who was driving at the time, were arrested.
“You crossed an international border,” said the officer, who allegedly ignored the family’s pleas that they had unknowingly crossed into the U.S. and never intended to enter the country during their trip.
The family asked if they could “simply turn around” and were denied, Connors wrote.
Connors and her baby were separated from her husband and placed in “a very cold cell” at an undisclosed Border Patrol station in Washington state, the statement said. Cambria, a lawyer with Aldea — The People’s Justice Center in Pennsylvania, told The Post in a Monday interview that the frigid detention cells have a nickname: “Hieleras,” or “iceboxes.”
The Connorses were issued “metal-like, thin emergency blankets” to keep warm, according to the complaint. David Connors was also given a foam cup with noodle soup to eat, but he described the meager meal as “not even apt for animals,” the statement said.
Then, all they could do was wait, Eileen Connors wrote.
“The officers left us in the cell the entire day, with no information, no call to our family back home, no idea when we would be free to leave,” Connors wrote.
When it came time to sleep, Connors said she refused to allow her son to “lie on the disgusting floor” next to her, at one point even trying to balance the infant on top of her body.
“We are so sickened by all of this,” she wrote. “The idea and memory of our little baby having to sleep on a dirty floor of a cell will haunt us forever.”
In the morning, immigration officers told the Connorses that they could be released if they provided contact information for any family member living in the United States who could sponsor them, the statement said. Luckily, a relative with U.S. citizenship agreed to help.
“We were ready for all of this to end,” Connors wrote.
But hours later, the Connorses were informed that they wouldn’t be leaving. There was “a change in plans,” and soon after, they were loaded into a van in what “felt like an abduction or kidnapping,” according to the statement.
David Connors was dropped off at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, while Eileen Connors and her baby were taken to a Red Roof Inn in Seattle to spend the night.
They were reunited the next morning at a promising location: the Seattle airport.
“I thought, finally we’re going home and felt relieved, even though the officers would not tell me where we were going or why,” Eileen Connors wrote.
But her relief was short-lived.
When the Connorses got off their flight, they were in Pennsylvania. Their destination was the Berks Family Residential Center, a facility advocates have decried as “baby jail,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The arrival of the Connorses and their infant son on Oct. 5 marked “the first time in a long time that we’ve had a child under the age of 1 in this facility,” Cambria told The Post. The other couple, who had been traveling with the Connorses, and their 2-year-old twins were also transported to Berks, Cambria said.
“I don’t believe that it’s suitable for children that young because newborns probably shouldn’t be around a hundred other kids all of whom are coming from different parts of the world,” she said, adding, “There were a lot silly decisions made along the way. In this instance, when you’re talking about a 3-month-old, those silly decisions can be really dangerous.”
From the moment she and her family were placed in the “iceboxes” in Washington state, Connors wrote, she worried that her son, who has not yet completed his immunizations, might fall ill. Those concerns were only heightened once they were at the Berks center.
Connors alleged that she had to bathe her son on a couch inside an office using a washcloth and soap because he was too small for the showers. The baby bathtub she had been provided was “filthy dirty and had broken bits,” she wrote. Her son was also left without clothing, blankets or bibs for several hours because the center’s staff took the items to be washed, the statement said.
“The blankets and sheets in our room have a disgusting smell, like a dead dog,” Connors wrote. “I cannot use them to wrap up my baby for fear they haven’t been washed properly and my baby will become sick.”
On Friday, Connors wrote that her baby “woke up with his left eye swollen and teary” and his skin was “rough and blotchy.” Officials told the Connorses that their son was “a bit young” to be at the center, and if they wanted they could sign papers allowing him to be separated from them, the statement said.
“We were shocked and disgusted at the thought of our baby being taken from us, and ever since I cannot sleep thinking that someone might come in and take him from me,” Connors wrote.
Beyond the alleged living conditions, the Connorses also claim that they were not given an opportunity to call their embassy, instead relying on family members to reach out on their behalf. In the statement, Eileen Connors wrote that she only learned that the embassy had tried to contact her and her family while they were detained on Oct. 7, accusing the center’s staff of not passing along the message until it was too late in the day to call back.
After getting in touch with the embassy, Connors wrote that her family’s situation started to improve. She observed staff members cleaning the facility and she was given a playpen and little tub for her son, according to the statement. ICE officials also suggested that the family would get to go home in the near future but did not provide details, Connors wrote.
In Tuesday’s statement, ICE said it “does not discuss specific removal arrangements prior to an individual’s successful repatriation," adding that the Connorses have had access to U.K. consular officials while in custody.
While there have been other cases as recently as last year of people getting detained after accidentally crossing the U.S.-Canada border, Cambria told The Post on Monday that she was most bothered by “the extreme level of enforcement exhibited” toward the vacationing family and their young children.
“Emotionally and psychologically, they’re destroyed,” Cambria said. “They’re very upset about what’s happened to them because it doesn’t make sense. Anyone that reads their statement or hears their story will not understand how this could’ve possibly happened.”
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.