Disability discrimination at Honolulu International Airport leads to complaint against US Customs and Border Protection, Federal Bureau of Prisons

Honolulu, Hawaiʻi – The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaiʻi Foundation (“ACLU”) has filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of a deaf tourist from Japan who was illegally denied access to effective communication during hours of interrogation and detention.

M., who wishes to remain anonymous because of her fears of retaliation by immigration officials, was detained on January 31, 2017, shortly after she landed at the airport on a trip to visit her boyfriend, a resident of Hawaiʻi. Throughout hours of questioning by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, M. was denied access to an American Sign Language (“ASL”) interpreter – despite her repeated requests that one be provided. M. was forced to communicate by lip reading and writing, which was not effective, and she did not understand what was going on. Nor was any ASL interpreter provided during her overnight detention by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. M. was also denied access to an accessible telephone that she could use to communicate with her family and boyfriend. Additionally, in violation of Department of Justice guidance, M. was handcuffed behind her back when transferred to and within the Federal Detention Center, preventing her from communicating using her hands.

M., said: “I was so scared and felt alone. For people with deafness, being cut off from our ways of communicating is terrifying. I have traveled a lot, but have never experienced anything like this at any airport ever. With this complaint, I just want to make sure that other deaf people coming through Hawaii’s airports are treated with basic respect and dignity, and that disabilities are accommodated.”

Claudia Center, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program, who is assisting the local ACLU on this case, stated: “The federal officials that M. interacted with at the airport and the prison violated her rights under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and demonstrated ignorance about how to appropriately interact with a profoundly deaf individual.”

ACLU legal director Mateo Caballero said: “The law is clear – and it requires that federal agencies protect the civil rights of deaf individuals, including by ensuring effective communication during questioning by law enforcement. These federal agents ignored our client’s repeated requests for an ASL interpreter – denying her ability to communicate over seven hours of questioning and sixteen hours of subsequent detention. The unnecessary handcuffing of our client eliminated her ability to communicate. The government’s treatment demonstrates a complete disregard of the law that is deeply troubling. The ACLU’s complaint demands a full investigation and the training of custom and border agents so that other deaf individuals do not experience the same traumatic detention practices as our client did.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Federal Bureau of Prisons have not yet responded to the complaint, which was filed on April 24th and can be found here: ACLUHI_DHS_CRCL_Complaint_April_2017.

The mission of the Hawaiʻi affiliate of the ACLU is to protect the civil liberties contained in the state and federal constitutions through litigation, legislative and public education programs statewide. The ACLU is funded primarily through private donations and offers its service at no cost to the public. The ACLU does not accept any government funds.

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