A Honduran man who was told he would be separated from his family after he had crossed the U.S. border into Texas with them last month strangled himself in his holding cell, according to Customs and Border Protection officials, public records and media reports.
The man, Marco Antonio Muñoz, crossed the Rio Grande with his wife and 3-year-old son in mid-May near Granjeno, Texas, The Washington Post reported.
In a statement, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said Muñoz was apprehended by Border Patrol agents May 11 for “attempting illegal entry into the United States” and taken to the Rio Grande Valley central processing center.
Once there, Muñoz and his family said they wanted to apply for asylum, The Post reported; Border Patrol agents then told them they would be separated.
While at the processing center, the Customs and Border Protection spokesman said, Muñoz “became disruptive and combative,” so authorities moved him to a jail in Starr County, Texas — about 40 miles west of the processing center — for an overnight stay.
Although the statement did not say whether Muñoz was with family members at the border, or explain why he became combative, media outlets reported that he grew upset after learning that his family would be split up.
A public report posted by the Texas attorney general says Muñoz, 39, was booked into the jail the night of May 12. He was “combative and noncompliant” and scuffled with a detention officer, the report said, before being placed in a padded cell late that night.
Throughout the evening, officers checked on Muñoz every 30 minutes, the report said, but during the morning shift, different officers found Muñoz dead on the floor.
The death was listed in the report as a suicide by self-strangulation and hanging. Law enforcement officials reviewed video recordings of what happened in the cell overnight, the report said.
“CBP takes every loss of life very seriously and has initiated an internal review to ensure these policies were followed,” the agency’s statement said, referring to the agency’s standards on transport, escort, detention and search.
Representatives from the Starr County Sheriff’s Office did not return multiple calls and emails for comment Saturday. A person who picked up the phone there said staff members were not available on weekends.
On May 7, days before Muñoz was apprehended at the border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would criminally prosecute everyone who illegally crosses the Southwest border, in what he called a “zero tolerance” policy intended to deter new migrants, mainly from Central American countries like Honduras.
The policy imposes potential criminal penalties on border-crossers who would have previously faced mainly civil deportation proceedings — and in the process, forces the separation of families crossing the border.
Many who have criticized the policy have focused on its effect on children who are separated from their parents.
But Justin Tullius, a lawyer at the nonprofit Raices, which works with migrants in Texas, said adults who are detained have also suffered.
“We’ve worked with parents who have shared suicidal thoughts and who have attempted to take their own lives because of the experience of detention,” Tullius said. “We can’t allow policies that traumatize parents and children. Families must be allowed to go through the process of seeking protection in the U.S. together, without unnecessary and harmful separation.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.