Lawsuit claims National Guard members sexually exploited migrants seeking asylum

Feb 9, 2024, 3:32 PM

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — National Guard members assigned to Buffalo-area hotels housing migrants awaiting asylum hearings are accused in a lawsuit of sexually exploiting the migrants, who described feeling especially vulnerable while living in unclean rooms, far from family and with little access to the outside.

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan names the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs and at least six New York National Guard members, along with several employees of the company DocGo, the contractor hired by New York City to oversee the migrants’ needs.

It was brought by six female and one male asylum seeker and a dozen current and former employees of a subcontractor, Platinum Community Care, who reported the alleged behavior.

“Jane Doe, who had journeyed through jungles with her children, evaded sexual traffickers in Mexico, and crossed rivers, suddenly found herself in a snow-covered rural property in America (where she was totally isolated) with her children, facing pressure from a member of the NY National Guard for sex,” according to the lawsuit, describing one Venezuelan woman’s experience.

National Guard members and DocGo staff were seen “dancing intimately and romantically kissing guests,” and guardsmen sometimes brought migrants to a nearby hotel where they were staying, the lawsuit said.

“The guests were (and remain) particularly vulnerable, given their uncertain immigration status, lack of mobility, need of basic supplies, and other needs. Even a trip to a Walmart was considered a great gift,” according to the lawsuit.

The asylum seekers were among an overflow of migrants who were transferred from New York City after arriving there in 2023. They described being deceived into traveling to Buffalo, about eight hours away by bus, after being told it was much closer, only to be housed in a run-down hotel with foul odors, exposed electrical outlets and damaged drywall.

“The mattresses displayed deep stains and were infested with insects, leading to the children living there being repeatedly bitten across their bodies,” according to the lawsuit, which seeks at least $9 million in damages for battery, false imprisonment, infliction of emotional distress and other causes.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul had placed the National Guard members at the site “to act as a stabilizing presence” following reports of violence and public criticism of the migrants’ arrival, the lawsuit said.

A National Guard spokesman did not respond to an emailed request for comment Friday. In a statement provided to the New York Times, spokesman Eric Durr said that anyone caught violating rules would face consequences.

“If allegations are substantiated following an investigation, this can result in adverse administrative and/or disciplinary actions pursuant to regulation and New York State military law,” the statement said. “Criminal activities are referred to law enforcement for appropriate action.”

A spokesperson for DocGo said the company had provided the state attorney general’s office with information it had requested “for review.” Attorney General Letitia James’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether an investigation was underway.

“We are committed to ensuring the continued safety and well-being of everyone under our care,” the DocGo statement said. “While we cannot disclose specifics, we conduct rigorous, evidence-based internal investigations into allegations regarding DocGo staff, and we have strict policies in place to address instances of misconduct.”

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Lawsuit claims National Guard members sexually exploited migrants seeking asylum