ICE Crashed a Van Full of Separated Mothers, Then Denied It Ever Happened

"The crash was really strong, like maybe we were going to flip," said one mom. "There was no crash," said ICE.

Illustration/Sunny Sone

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On July 18, a cargo van transporting eight Central American mothers separated from their children under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy crashed into a pickup truck in San Marcos. An ICE contractor was taking the women from a detention center near Austin to the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall to be reunited with their kids. Even though police said the van was too damaged to continue driving and the women reported injuries, ICE repeatedly denied the crash ever took place.

According to a police report obtained by the Observer and individual interviews with four of the passengers, the crash occurred as the group was leaving a Sunoco gas station just off Interstate 35. The van’s driver was an employee of Trailboss Enterprises, an Alaska-based company that provides transportation for ICE in Central and South Texas. The driver failed to come to a stop and T-boned an F-250 that was entering the gas station, police said. The mothers told the Observer the impact slammed them against the seats in front of them, resulting in headaches, dizziness, nausea and injury to one woman’s leg, which began swelling immediately.

“The crash was really strong, like maybe we were going to flip,” said Dilcia, a Honduran mom who requested that the Observer not publish her full name, out of fear of angering government officials. “We were all trembling with shock from the accident; my whole body hurt,” added another passenger, Roxana, who also did not want her full name published.

The four women said they were not instructed to wear seat belts. In the accident report, a San Marcos Police Department officer assessed the damage to the van as a 4 on a 0-to-7 scale, and said the vehicle was towed. An ambulance was dispatched to the scene, but no one was taken to the hospital. (The mothers said they refused to go to the hospital because they feared it would delay or prevent them from being reunified with their children).

This copy of the accident report has been heavily redacted by the San Marcos Police Department. The Observer obtained an unredacted copy that we are not publishing due to identifying information.

For nearly three weeks, ICE denied the crash happened and ignored requests for information. The Observer was first alerted to the crash the day after it occurred by immigrant rights activists in Austin. The next day, Leticia Zamarripa, an ICE spokesperson, denied the incident twice. “Your sources misinformed you,” Zamarripa wrote on July 20. “There was no crash.”

The Observer then interviewed four of the passengers. Meanwhile, ICE did not respond to three additional requests for comment. When informed on Tuesday that the Observer had obtained the accident report, the agency issued a statement about seven hours later.

The statement, from ICE spokesperson Adelina Pruneda, says the incident was a “fender bender not vehicle crash” that “resulted in minor damage to both vehicles.” Pruneda added that both vehicles “remained operable.” However, the responding police officer wrote that the van carrying the immigrants was towed after suffering “disabling damage.” Pruneda did not respond to questions about why the agency initially denied the incident and refused to provide information.

The Sunoco gas station in San Marcos.  Kolten Parker

“ICE has proven to us over and over we can’t trust them: They’ll lie when there’s a hunger strike, a crash… about anything, at any time,” said Cristina Parker, communications director for the Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership. “This is a vindication of what activists and organizers have been saying for a long time, which is ICE regularly lies to media and public officials.”

Trump’s ICE has repeatedly misled the public. The agency misreported the number of arrests in Austin during an immigration raid in February 2017, which it also falsely claimed wasn’t motivated by politics. It scrambled during the operation to compile “egregious” cases in an attempt to paint the action as targeting hardened criminals.

Now, ICE is taking increasing heat for its role in Trump’s family separations policy: #AbolishICE has gone from a fringe slogan to a position taken by some mainstream Democrats; even Trailboss, the transportation contractor, has come under fire for its association with the agency.

The police report identifies the van as belonging to Trailboss, and both the driver and front passenger were working for the company. A Trailboss spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny the crash had occurred. “We hire professional certified commercial vehicle operators to transport our passengers,” the spokesperson said on July 25.

At the crash scene, the four women say another cargo van with a new driver arrived to take them to the detention center in Pearsall, about 100 miles away. This time, the driver instructed them to wear their seatbelts, the women said.

Once in the Pearsall facility, the four women say they reported the crash to an official. Only Marta, the mother with the leg injury, said she was seen by a doctor at the detention center. Marta, who requested a pseudonym, reported the crash to the doctor, who gave her acetaminophen. “I don’t think it’s fractured, but it hurts; it takes me a long time to stand up,” she said over the phone from detention a week and a half ago, adding that her leg was still bruised and swollen.

Sandra, a passenger in the crash, was reunified with her son and released with a GPS ankle monitor.  Gus Bova

Another woman, Sandra, who requested her full name not be used, said a week after the crash she still had persistent pain and discomfort breathing.

The four women the Observer spoke to were all released within five days of the crash, except for Marta — who signed a deportation form she said she did not understand, and was initially denied reunification with her son. After nearly a week she was suddenly reunified and released with no explanation, she said.

All four women are now living with family in the United States, wearing GPS ankle monitors and attending ICE check-ins. They all lost their initial asylum screening interviews while in detention, but are trying to appeal.

Gus Bova reports on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements for the Observer. He formerly worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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