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Lawsuit filed after deaf Brownsville man detained at checkpoint

Lawsuit filed after deaf Brownsville man detained at checkpoint

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mark Reagan
The Brownsville Herald

On the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights lawyer filed a lawsuit on behalf of a deaf Brownsville man who was detained at the Boca Chica Beach federal checkpoint and was not provided with an interpreter to translate American Sign Language between the man and federal authorities.

South Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Joseph Martin filed the suit on behalf of Adam Schraer, who filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security component Customs and Border Protection seeking its policies, practices and procedures regarding the detainment of deaf people at a mobile checkpoint, court documents show.

U.S. Border Patrol — a component of CBP under DHS — operates the checkpoint on Texas State Highway 4 near Boca Chica Beach.

According to the complaint, Schraer and some friends went to the beach April 7, but on his way home he was unable to effectively communicate with agents at the checkpoint who did not know American Sign Language.

“Plaintiff, alone, attempted to sign at the officers. None of the officers was able to effectively communicate in American Sign Language,” according to the document. “Instead, one of the officers wrote a simple question on a piece of paper: ‘U.S. citizen?’ Plaintiff wrote in response: ‘Yes.’”

According to his lawyer, Schraer struggles to read and write English at a grade-school level and has been “completely and profoundly deaf his entire life.”

Schraer also wrote “ADA” on a paper, which stands for the Americans with Disability Act. And according to the lawsuit, his intent was to request an interpreter.

“The officers merely took his note and did not write any response back. Instead, they relocated him to secondary screening,” according to the complaint.

Schraer grew nervous, but hoped agents were contacting an interpreter or setting up a video-relay service, the complaint states.

“They did neither. Instead, one of the CBP officers took Plaintiff’s mobile phone and, to Plaintiff’s horror, called contact after contact,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff, due to his deafness, still does not know the nature of the questions asked by the CBP officer. However, one of his friends who was called by the CBP officer contacted Plaintiff’s parents, who arrived at the checkpoint and picked him up.”

According to the lawsuit, Schraer was detained for two hours without reasonable accommodation and could have been deported by mistake.

Border Patrol spokesman Henry Mendiola said because the case was filed Thursday morning, the agency hadn’t received a copy of the original complaint when called for comment.

“It’s too early to even review a case filed today,” he said. “But we will address it once we receive his complaint.”

Mendiola said the process just takes time. He added that once the agency receives notice of litigation, he won’t be able to comment. Federal agencies, as a rule, don’t comment on pending litigation.

Martin said Schraer contacted him.

“This case is a first where I was contacted by a person from the disabled community. But speaking to other people in that community, they are very concerned because, especially since seeing increased enforcement on the border, if they don’t have a policy it could lead to dramatic consequences for members of the deaf community,” Martin said.

And the incident stirred fear in the border deaf community, Martin argued in the complaint.

“Deaf individuals and their families live in fear that a CBP officer will stop them, detain them, and possibly take further action without establishing effective communication with them,” according to the lawsuit. “They fear that a deaf person might be asked or compelled to sign documents that could have serious implications, including, but not limited to, deportation or removal.”

And that’s why Schraer filed his FOIA request seeking the agency’s policies, procedures and practices, court documents show.

Schraer last heard from CBP on April 29, when the agency acknowledged receipt of his request and assigned it a reference number.

The South Texas Civil Rights Project filed a variety of lawsuits on the 23rd anniversary of the law, including complaints in Progreso, Edinburg and Harlingen.

“It is a shame that, although the ADA was passed 23 years ago today, people with disabilities are still finding themselves barred from fully participating in American life,” civil rights attorney Elliot Tucker said in a press release announcing the lawsuits. “Our clients are brave for coming forward to confront the daily discriminations that keep them and people like them from being equal members of our community.”

The American with Disabilities Act was signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, and it was broadened by his son, President George W. Bush, on Sept. 25, 2008.

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