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The National Guard was sent to protect migrants at New York relief centers. But some sexually exploited them, lawsuit alleges

<i>Brandon Watson/The New York Times/Redux</i><br/>The Quality Inn
Brandon Watson/The New York Times/Redux
The Quality Inn

By Alisha Ebrahimji and Artemis Moshtaghian, CNN

(CNN) — Some National Guard members and publicly contracted relief workers tasked with caring for people who sought asylum in New York stand accused instead of sexually exploiting migrant women and children, violently assaulting at least one shelter guest and generally placing the newcomers into decrepit conditions, according to a federal lawsuit filed this month.

Most of the incidents in the sanctuary state happened at the Quality Inn in Cheektowaga, near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where controversial New York City contractor DocGo set up a Humanitarian Emergency Relief and Response Center for asylum-seekers, says the suit, which seeks nearly $10 million and a jury trial.

In one episode, a National Guard sergeant took a migrant woman and her children nearly two hours away to a rental property where he asked her to perform sexual favors in exchange for assisting her and her family, according to the suit, filed in the Southern District of New York.

“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,” the federal complaint states.

In other cases, a migrant man was strangled by a DocGo manager, a teenage girl was groped by a National Guard member and children’s bodies were bitten repeatedly by insects from their infested mattresses, the suit claims.

In light of the federal complaint, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul “has prioritized taking action to keep everyone in the State of New York safe,” her spokesperson Avi Small told CNN on Friday. “The New York National Guard, as part of the United States military, has an independent disciplinary process under military law which will be followed to the fullest extent in order to hold offenders accountable.”

The state Division of Military and Naval Affairs “takes all allegations of misconduct regarding our personnel very seriously and – if allegations are substantiated following an investigation – can result in adverse administrative and/or disciplinary actions pursuant to regulation and New York State Military Law,” agency spokesperson Eric Durr told CNN on Friday. “Criminal activities are referred to law enforcement for appropriate action.”

For its part, DocGo is “committed to ensuring the continued safety and well-being of everyone under our care,” its spokesperson Michael Padovano told CNN in a statement Friday. “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. … We are cooperating with the attorney general’s office and have provided all requested information for review.”

The New York Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation into DocGo last summer after increased city scrutiny over the company’s handling of migrant affairs and finances. Its CEO at the time vowed to be “fully cooperative and totally transparent with our regulating bodies, including the AG.”

CNN has reached out to the AG’s office asking for an update on the investigation.

Amid a surge last summer of migrants at the US southern border, Hochul began sending National Guard forces to hotels in Cheektowaga’s Erie County, where some newcomers had had been taken after arriving in New York City. The military presence was intended “as a stabilizing presence” in response to public outcry there over at least two cases of alleged sexual violence by new arrivals in the area, according to the suit and news releases from the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.

The National Guard statewide now has more than 2,100 personnel involved in its migrant support mission, Durr said. About 540 migrants currently are being housed at three Erie County hotels as part of DocGo’s program, Peter Anderson, a spokesperson for Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, told CNN on Tuesday.

The New York AG’s office and the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

Groping, massages and sexual favors for gifts alleged

Two high-ranking officials at the relief center in Cheektowaga – New York National Guard Sgt. Deven Colon and Rigoberto Nuñez, who managed day-to-day affairs there for DocGo – engaged in inappropriate relationships with migrants that became “more open and unabashed around Halloween of 2023,” according to the federal suit.

Both were seen “dancing intimately and romantically kissing guests” during a Halloween party staff hosted for guests, it says.

Though DocGo subcontractor staffers named as plaintiffs in the suit expressed concern to their superiors about these interactions, “no action was taken, and the inappropriate relationships became more part of accepted daily life,” according to the lawsuit.

Speaking to the New York Times before the lawsuit was filed, Colon acknowledged engaging in a “flirtation” with one woman but said he never crossed “any physical lines.” He also denied he had sent inappropriate text messages to her daughter, another allegation in the lawsuit.

Colon told the New York Times he left the National Guard’s asylum-seeker support mission after a DocGo supervisor reported him to his military bosses. The Times did not say what behavior was reported. Colon said he had “nothing to hide,” but then stopped responding to the Times’ inquiries, it reported.

CNN has reached out to Colon and is seeking contact information or legal representation for Nuñez.

Meanwhile, a subcontractor worker at the relief center in Cheektowaga – whose employment ultimately was terminated – reported “inappropriate relationships between National Guardsmen and guests, which included sexual communications with minors,” the suit states. She was told she was fired because “she had become too emotionally involved with the guests, despite her efforts to address the grave issues plaguing the facility,” it states.

Interactions with migrants “became so extreme that NY National Guardsmen were allowed to transport guests from (the) Cheektowaga (relief center) to the nearby hotel where the guardsmen were staying,” the suit also notes.

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

“Nuñez, Colon, and others exploited these vulnerabilities,” the suit states.

Colon also regularly had inappropriate contact with an asylum-seeker identified as one of 10 plaintiff Jane Does – bringing her gift cards, making sexual comments, taking her to his own home and other places for what he called “dates,” the lawsuit alleges.

Colon once snuck that Jane Doe and her kids out of the relief center with other Guard members’ help and took them to the rental property two hours away on the pretense “it would be a fun, family time,” the lawsuit says.

Once there, though, Colon demanded sexual favors from the mother in exchange for aiding her and her family, the suit says: “Unsure of her whereabouts, in dire poverty, and separated from her friends and family in Venezuela, Jane Doe felt she had no choice but to engage in sexual activity with Colon.”

When they all returned to the relief center, Colon texted Jane Doe his regret for his actions and begged her not to tell anyone about what transpired, the suit states. Shortly after, she learned Colon had taken another guest and her daughter off the property, too.

Meanwhile, the same mother “learned that her teenage daughter was taken by (another) of the National Guard members to a private section of the hotel without a camera, where he groped her legs and told her she was beautiful, until her daughter ran,” according to the lawsuit.

That Guard member was known to have done this to other young women in the hotel, with many other families warning their children to avoid him, it states.

Violence reported at a supposedly safe haven

Violence inside the Cheektowaga relief center “was common,” according to the lawsuit, which highlights a November incident in which Nuñez, the DocGo manager of day-to-day affairs, “entered (a) room forcefully with several security guards and Colon,” of the National Guard.

They arrived just after an argument between Venezuelan asylum-seeker Florangelis “Flor” Maria Cabreara Medina and her spouse Alexander Jose Vizcaino Marrufo, it states. Nuñez soon “began assaulting Alexander without any provocation, even strangling him as Flor begged Nuñez to stop.”

Alexander was kicked out of the relief center after Nuñez contacted Cheektowaga police about the incident into the Buffalo winter, where he spent several days seeking shelter behind a dumpster near a gas station, according to the lawsuit.

“They’re living in the same fear they were trying to escape,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer Nate McMurray of Advocates for Justice Chartered Attorneys, who also is a congressional candidate in western New York, told the New York Times.

“We hear a lot about migrants being a threat or an invading army, but really these are people who are very vulnerable, and if we are a nation of laws and rights, they deserve our protection,” he told the Times.

Too-long travels to decrepit living quarters alleged

More generally, asylum-seekers under DocGo’s care were deceived by its employees into traveling eight hours to Buffalo and other places far from New York City after they were told they were being taken only a short distance away from the nation’s most populous city, the lawsuit alleges.

Once at the Cheektowaga relief center near the Buffalo airport, they found “merely a dilapidated Quality Inn hotel, plagued by numerous issues such as unclean conditions, foul odors, damaged drywall, exposed electrical outlets, and inadequate amenities,” the suit states.

“The mattresses displayed deep stains and were infested with insects, leading to the children living there being repeatedly bitten across their bodies,” which was illustrated through photos of the children plaintiffs took to show DocGo leadership, the suit states.

CNN has sought comment about the alleged hotel conditions from the Quality Inn, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance told CNN it does not comment on pending litigation.

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