Joel Reyes Muñoz is seen in two side-by-side undated photos. Courtesy of Reyes Muñoz's family.

Why This Matters

The lawsuit, which followed an inewsource investigation, raises questions about whether federal immigration officials respond appropriately to migrants' medical needs after injuries.

The family of a Mexican man who died in federal custody in San Diego last year is suing the U.S. government, claiming officials refused to provide lifesaving medical care after the man fell from the U.S.-Mexico border wall. 

Joel Reyes Muñoz died on Jan. 12, 2022, nearly two hours after Border Patrol agents spotted a group of migrants crossing into San Diego near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry and detained him. 

In a press release U.S. Customs and Border Protection posted two days later, the agency said that Reyes Muñoz “became ill and eventually unresponsive” while at the port of entry. His death certificate, which inewsource obtained and reported on exclusively, says he died of multiple blunt force injuries in a parking lot at the CBP cargo processing center. 

Last August, an inewsource investigation reported on the thin details surrounding Reyes Muñoz’s death and the questions it raised for his family and immigration advocates, including whether officials took appropriate action to prevent his death. 

In a complaint filed Aug. 3, Leticia Duran Martinez and her two sons, representing the estate of Reyes Muñoz, accuse the U.S. government and 10 unnamed federal agents of negligence, wrongful death and a violation of the Bane Act in the passing of her late husband. The Bane Act allows individuals to file lawsuits against individuals who violate their civil rights through violence, coercion, threat of violence or intimidation. The family is also seeking financial damages of an unspecified amount.

Customs and Border Protection, which houses Border Patrol, declined to comment.

Duran Martinez brought the civil suit in hopes of finding out exactly how her late husband died and recovering from the financial burden the loss of the family’s main provider has caused. 

“More than anything for this reason I wanted to know, to understand what really happened to him,” Duran Martinez said. “And if there are people to be blamed, it is so that this does not happen again.”

Reyes Muñoz left his family in Aguascalientes for the U.S. to work and earn enough money to send his two sons, now 17 and 18, to college. 

Duran Martinez last spoke to Reyes Muñoz the day he died. He had tried crossing before without success and if he failed again, she said he told her, he would return home. 

Instead, he died later that day in custody. Duran Martinez would not find out about the death of her husband for a week. 

The complaint alleges that agents refused to bring Reyes Muñoz to a hospital despite that “it was obvious that he sustained serious injuries and was manifestly in need of immediate emergency medical care.” 

Only after Reyes Muñoz stopped breathing did Customs officials seek medical care for him – a  delay that cost Reyes Muñoz his life, the complaint alleges. 

Authorities detained Reyes Muñoz near an industrial area west of the Otay Mesa where the newer – and higher – section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall divides San Diego and Tijuana. 

In 2019 then-President Donald Trump completed replacement of the older border barrier with the new 30-foot steel fencing. The policy decision was highly criticized by immigration and human rights advocates who said the change would not stop undocumented immigration.  

In fact, the lawsuit mentions a study by doctors at the UC San Diego trauma center which found a fivefold increase in the number of patients admitted with injuries related to falling from the border wall after the wall was heightened to 30 feet. 

Customs officials involved in Reyes Muñoz’s death were well aware of the increase in border wall injuries and deaths and knew “that he had fallen, that he was injured and that his condition was grave,” according to the lawsuit. 

“We know from the data that existed at the time Mr. Reyes Muñoz fell from the wall that the government was well aware that many people were likely to sustain harm,” said Eugene Iredale, a San Diego civil rights attorney representing the estate of Reyes Muñoz. 

Yet they did not provide the appropriate and necessary care, Iredale said. 

Aside from recuperating financial and emotional losses and getting answers on Reyes Muñoz’s death, Iredale and the family hope the case will lead to improvements in how federal agents respond to injuries and prevent deaths along the border. 

“It is our hope that the decision in this case, the verdict in this case, if it is substantial enough and the rationale of the court is clear enough, will result in a change in policy and the greater concern and sensitivity by Border Patrol and CBP to injuries that may occur as a result of falls from these excessively high walls,” Iredale said. 

For Duran Martinez, it’s not enough for the federal government to tell people like her husband not to come to the U.S. 

“I imagine that many people like my husband, for whom family is their priority, look for one way or another, wanting the best for their family,” Duran Martinez said.

“Saying don’t do it, it’s unnecessary. They’d do it anyway,” she said. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...