National Guardsmen Accused of Abusing Migrants TheyWere Sent to Protect
A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of several migrants and whistle-blower workers accused the National Guard of abusing asylum seekers in a Buffalo-area motel . By Jay Root Feb. 8, 2024, 3:27 p.m. ET The New York Times After two asylum seekers were arrested last summer and accused of sexual assault at Buffalo-area motels, Gov. Kathy Hochul sent in the National Guard to provide a “stabilizing presence” there and at a handful of other motels being used as shelters. But now the Guard is investigating whether some of its members engaged in sexual misconduct with migrants in western New York, amid a new lawsuit accusing Guard members and private supervisors of various abuses. The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, describes a culture of coercion, fear and retribution at the Quality Inn motel near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, one of the many low-budget lodgings where recent migrants have been relocated to relieve pressure on New York City’s beleaguered shelter system. One guardsman was accused of sexual assault for coercing a Venezuelan woman to trade sexual favors in exchange for food and housing, and another of groping the woman’s 10- year-old daughter. The National Guard would neither confirm nor deny a sexual misconduct investigation in western New York, but Sgt. Deven Colon, the guardsman accused in the lawsuit of having sex with the Venezuelan woman, confirmed that an inquiry had begun. In a telephone interview last week, Sergeant Colon said his superiors told him there were “allegations, some sexual, against multiple soldiers — and you’re involved.” He denied ever having a sexual encounter with any migrant. The Guard’s New York military division said in a written statement that anyone caught violating its rules or the law 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,” Eric Durr, a Guard spokesman, said in a statement. “Criminal activities are referred to law enforcement for appropriate action.” The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven people, including three migrants and four current or former subcontractors for DocGo, a New York City-based company that landed a $432 million no-bid contract to house and care for migrants both in the city and upstate. Two other episodes described in the lawsuit center on allegations against two supervisors employed by DocGo. One supervisor was accused of having sex with a migrant under his protection; the other was accused of choking a migrant after a confrontation in the asylum seeker’s room. DocGo is being investigated by the New York State attorney general in part over allegations that the company or its subcontractors misled or mistreated migrants. Company officials said its supervisors were cleared of wrongdoing after an internal investigation. “DocGo remains unwavering in our focus on factual and evidence-based assessments,” said a company spokesman, Rob Ford. “We continue to adhere to our strict compliance and legal standards and are committed to running a high-quality operation that provides compassionate care and support to those we serve.” Investigators characterized the alleged assault as an act in self-defense against a migrant who had been abusive to his wife; they also found no evidence of a sexual relationship. But the lawsuit suggested a different version of events. The man who was choked, Alexander Vizcaino, a Venezuelan migrant, and his wife, Florangelis Cabrera, said a DocGo supervisor put his hands around Mr. Vizcaino’s neck without physical provocation and then evicted him from the hotel. After being evicted from the Quality Inn, Alexander Vizcaino said he slept for three nights by a dumpster in a gas station lot. Brandon Watson for The New York Times Mr. Vizcaino slept next to a gas station dumpster for three days in November. Even now his temporary housing remains iffy. “They’re living in the same fear they were trying to escape,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Nate McMurray, a congressional candidate in western New York. “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.” The lawsuit asserts that his clients’ civil rights were violated and employees who reported claims of misconduct faced a hostile workplace and retaliation. It seeks millions of dollars in damages from DocGo, the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs, which encompasses the state’s reserve forces, and others. Mr. Vizcaino and his wife, Florangelis Cabrera, said that a DocGo supervisor choked him without provocation. Brandon Watson for The New York Times The Venezuelan woman who accused Sergeant Colon, 24, of having sex with her is not named in the lawsuit. She accused the sergeant, one of the highest-ranking military officials stationed at the Quality Inn, of repeatedly promising to help her start a new life in America. Then around Christmas, she said he took her to a house about two hours from Buffalo, under the pretense that it would be “a fun family time” for her and her children, according to the lawsuit. “Once there, he demanded sexual favors in exchange for his assistance to her and her family,” according to the lawsuit. Penniless and unsure where she had been taken, the woman “felt she had no choice but to engage in sexual activity with Colon,” it said. Afterward, he sent a series of apologetic texts, including one that said he did not “recognize the man I have become,”according to the lawsuit and messages reviewed by The New York Times. The woman later complained to DocGo that Sergeant Colon’s behavior toward her 17- year-old daughter on the trip made her uncomfortable, and that he began texting her daughter and “telling her that she was attractive,” the lawsuit says. DocGo did not specifically address what actions it took, but said in general that the company “immediately escalates reported issues” of guardsmen to Guard leadership for further investigation. Speaking to The Times before the lawsuit was filed, Sergeant Colon acknowledged engaging in a “flirtation” with the Venezuelan woman but said he never crossed “any physical lines.” He also denied that he had sent inappropriate text messages to her daughter. “There was never any sexual anything with anyone,” he said, adding that his only mistake was being “too nice” to a migrant family — kindness that he said “blew up in my face.” But text messages that the Venezuelan woman said Sergeant Colon sent her did discuss a trip, after which he urged her to obscure the reason for it when she returned to the Quality Inn, Mr. McMurray said. “Please let people know that you were visiting family!” he texted her. In another message, Sergeant Colon said he was “no longer pursuing any type of romantic relationships” and that he “would like to just be friends and that’s it.” “I really need to focus on myself with no more drama,” Sergeant Colon said. “I have a long road to recovery.” A day after saying in the interview that he had “nothing to hide,” Sergeant Colon stopped responding to The Times. In the interview last week, however, he confirmed he left the Guard’s asylum seeker support mission after a DocGo supervisor reported him to military brass. He said his superiors gave him the choice of switching to a different hotel or leaving the asylum seeker task force altogether, and he chose the latter. The Venezuelan woman added in the lawsuit that her 10-year-old daughter was groped by a different National Guardsman, who told her she was beautiful, in an area of the hotel without surveillance cameras, prompting her to run away from him. National Guard members make up the “sole staff” at a quarter of the migrant hotel shelters in New York City, and the statewide mission is projected to cost taxpayers about $260 million in the next budget, Jackie Bray, New York’s commissioner of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, said at a recent hearing. While the Guard would not confirm the existence of a sexual misconduct investigation in Buffalo, it did demote one guardsman after he punched a migrant in December, according to an internal communication obtained by The Times. It was written by Lt. Col. Aaron Lefton, who commands the Joint Task Force Asylum Seeker mission, in a mid-December message that was widely circulated to guardsmen but has not been publicly reported. “We are not to fight the asylum seekers,” Colonel Lefton wrote. Susan C. Beachy and Alain Delaquérière contributed research . Jay Root is an investigative reporter based in Albany, N.Y., covering the people and events influencing — and influenced by — state and local government.