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'This might be the tip of the iceberg': Migrants housed in Cheektowaga claim they were victims of sexual abuse

'This might be the tip of the iceberg': Migrants housed in Cheektowaga claim they were victims of sexual abuse

Content warning: This story contains details of sexual conduct.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of seven migrants being housed in Western New York, claiming that they were abused my members of the National Guard as well as workers with DocGo.

DocGo is the New York City-based company in charge of transporting and housing migrants in New York. It was given the more than $400 million no-bid contract with New York City in 2023.

The suit claims that the migrants and current and former employees of a company hired by DocGo were victims of "sexual exploitation" and physical violence at the hands of members of the National Guard and DocGo staff.

The lawsuit claims in one instance that a National Guard sergeant, named as Deven Colon, snuck a migrant and her children to a rental property two hours away and once there, demanded sexual favors from the woman in exchange for his assistance to her and her family. The suit says that this caused severe distress to her and her children.

In addition, the lawsuit alleges another anonymous asylum seeker's daughter, who is 10-years-old, was taken by one of the National Guard members to a private, unsupervised area of the hotel where he groped her legs. The 10-year-old ran to get away from him, according to the lawsuit.

The suit claims that a former employee of the company working for DocGo reported inappropriate relationships between staff and migrants several times and was eventually fired in December for being "too emotionally involved" with guests.

It also claims that violence was commonplace at the Cheektowaga hotel that asylum seekers were staying in. The suit brings up an example that allegedly occurred on Nov. 9, 2023, where an asylum seeker named as Alexander Jose Vizcaino Marrufo was assaulted by a DocGo worker named as Rigoberto Nunez, who is alleged to be "known for openly harassing and physically assaulting guests."

"They were given this huge contract with this huge responsibility and we can see what happened. I think there are a lot of people who are negligent with regard to this facility, overseeing the facility, managing the problem. What I'm really afraid of is this might be the tip of the iceberg," Nate McMurray, the attorney for the asylum seekers and current, former DocGo subcontractors, said.

The suit claims that asylum seekers were "deceived" into thinking that Buffalo was only a few minutes away from New York City when they were initially transported to the area.

It also alleges poor conditions at the hotel, saying that it was "plagued by numerous issues such as unclean conditions, foul odors, damaged drywall, exposed electrical outlets and inadequate amenities" and "the mattresses displayed deep stains and were infested with insects, leading to the children living there being repeatedly bitten across their bodies."

The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial.

The Erie County District Attorney's Office says it is investigating criminal charges against the National Guard members and DocGo employees.

"When you're law enforcement or prosecutors, you don't want to hear the people who are paid to watch those who are the least protected among us, who don't know where to turn, that they are abusing those very individuals," Barry Covert said.

Both the National Guard and DocGo did not answer specific questions, citing it is a personnel matter.

The 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. Criminal activities are referred to law enforcement for appropriate action.

New York National Guard

“We are committed to ensuring the continued safety and well-being of everyone under our care. 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.

Since the launch of our program, we’ve worked with government partners to ensure we are delivering excellent, compassionate care to asylum seekers. Emergency sites where DocGo provides services have received many visits from multiple city and state agencies since our contract began, including the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) who confirmed our commitment to safety and the respectful treatment of all guests.”

DocGo

This story was first reported by The New York Times.

You can read the full 16-page lawsuit below.

Latest Local News

Aidan Joly joined the News 4 staff in 2022. He is a graduate of Canisius College. You can see more of his work here.

Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native and Emmy-nominated reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.

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