Immigrants Caught at Border Mistreated in Holding Cells, Lawsuit Says

Young immigrants in a Texas holding facility. A lawsuit filed this week alleges harsh conditions in Border Patrol detention cells.
Young immigrants in a Texas holding facility. A lawsuit filed this week alleges harsh conditions in Border Patrol detention cells.
Eric Gay, pool photo

Immigrants caught crossing the Mexican border into Arizona are thrown in cold, concrete cells for days at a time, denied medical care, and subjected to inhumane conditions, a new lawsuit states.

The American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, and other groups filed the class-action complaint against the U.S. Border Patrol in U.S. District Court in Arizona, asking a judge to order immediate reforms.

Though intended to improve conditions for all immigrants held at the border, the lawsuit, filed Monday, lists specific complaints of two unidentified women and a Nicaraguan native, Norlan Flores, 34. 

Representatives of the groups held a conference call  Wednesday morning with reporters, describing the "brutal" treatment of men, women and children at the Border Patrol Tucson Sector's holding facilities that were designed only for short-term use of 12 hours or less.

In a 2013 complaint filed on behalf of 100 immigrant children, Border Patrol Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske acknowledged these type of concerns were "absolutely spot on," but no significant changes have been made since then, said ACLU border attorney James Lyall.

The fresh lawsuit follows several other legal actions and years of reports of mistreatment of immigrants by U.S. authorities. A 2010 article in Phoenix New Times documented a number of horrific instances of maltreatment — and covered how the agency routinely hides evidence of its employees' policy violations and crimes.

The legal groups boil down the allegations on their websites with charts and statistics obtained from the Border Patrol. (See link in this web article to the actual complaint.)

Although a 2008 Border Patrol memo states that detained immigrants should typically spend no more than 12 hours in the cells — which contain no beds or benches — tens of thousands were held "in detention for an average of 49.9 hours, with a median of 39.4 hours."

The Tucson Sector is said to be one of the busiest Border Patrol sectors, apprehending more than 200,000 illegal border crossers in the past two fiscal years. It has eight stations, one substation and five forward operation bases, each of which has "concrete holding rooms" for immigrants that are supposed to be used briefly, Lyall said.

The "abuses" have been documented for years by activists and the news media, including the recent gathering of dozens of affidavits from detainees. The problems "are no secret," but the Border Patrol refuses to change its ways, he said

"The Border Patrol has a notorious culture of abuse and impunity," Lyall said. "The agency is now going to have to defend those practices in a court of law."

Statistics obtained by the groups through FOIA requests show that nearly 8,000 people were held in the concrete cells for three days or longer, while another 25,000 were held for 48 hours or longer.

Immigrants were denied water, "and when they did get it, it was almost undrinkable," said Nora Preciado, NILC attorney. "Other detainees were given food of such poor quality, they couldn't eat it. If they did, it made them sick... Children as young as 4 years old were left crying through the night from cold and hunger."

One woman who survived a sexual assault during her unauthorized crossing into the United States "reported heavy vaginal bleeding," but agents failed to give her medical attention, Preciado said.

The detainees listed in the lawsuit described how their holding room had a sink with drinking water they could use, but that the tap water tasted "awful."

Flores complains in the lawsuit that when he was detained by the Border Patrol in 2007, he was held for three days and often was hungry because he was only given snacks and juice. Agents didn't provide him or other detainees with soap, a toothbrush, or even access to an attorney, he alleges in the suit. In 2014, Flores was in the country on a visa still pending in court when he was picked up by Tucson police and taken to a Border Patrol station. There, he was held in four different cells for about 36 hours. Here's how the lawsuit describes some of the conditions he endured:

"None of the cells had beds or bedding; consequently he and others had to attempt to sleep sitting up or — if the cell was not too crowded — lying on the floor... He was held for 24 hours with about 130 other men all crowded together 'like sardines' in a cell with a posted occupancy of roughly half that number.

"The lights were kept on all night... Flores spent much of the time shivering from the cold.

"All of the cells were filthy and smelled terrible... The only time the cell was cleaned during his detention was by several inmates who had been offered an extra burrito in exchange for cleaning the cell.

"For more than eight hours, Plaintiff Flores received only crackers and juice. Eventually, Border Patrol agents gave each detainee a small burrito, but the conditions in the cell were so terrible ... that Plaintiff Flores was not able to eat.

"Some of the other detainees in the cell complained of stomach pain and of feeling sick, but the Border Patrol agents ignored them.

"Access to water was extremely limited. In the first cell, there was no water. Later, there was a water container, but no cups, and when the water ran out, agents did not replenish it for hours at a time. Plaintiff Flores had to refashion a used juice container into a cup in order to drink water."

One of the women from the complaint described how Border Patrol guards mocked her and other detainees, taking pictures of her and a Border Patrol dog, saying it was for the dog's Facebook account. One guard asked the detainees if they were hungry, joking that agents "were about to go to the store."

The bitter cold was a primary factor in the abuse, Preciado told reporters. Detainees typically are stripped of any jackets or outerwear, leaving them more vulnerable to air-conditioner units, which one guard explained were set low as "punishment," Preciado claimed.

The complaint of cold indoor temperatures was brought up frequently in 2013 when waves of young immigrants from Central America were detained. Border crossers call the holding rooms "hieleras," which means ice-boxes. 

New Times asked if the groups had any idea what temperature the Border Patrol set on its AC thermostats, and what the thermostats should be set at to ensure comfort from the summer heat without making the rooms too cold.

"The facilities are referred to as the hieleras for a reason," Lyall explained. "They're put in cells in T-shirts. All of them consistently described being freezing cold — floors that felt like ice."

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services asked the representatives what might be considered "reasonable" treatment for detainees, given that so many thousands are apprehended. Lawyer Colette Mayer of the law firm Morrison Foerster acknowledged that a "large" number of people were crossing the border but that the detainees are still owed their "basic constitutional rights."

Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic noted that the biggest illegal crossing point right now is in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and asked if conditions at Border Patrol facilities there were any better. Mayer told reporters that conditions at those facilities "are not significantly different" there than at the Tucson Sector's.

We also asked what a quick fix for the problems might be — for instance, should the immigrants be released, transferred promptly to a better holding facility, or maybe even put up in hotels?

"It could be as simple as to stop detaining women and children, for starters," Preciado answered.

But the fastest resolution for some of the problems would be for the Border Patrol to start adhering to its own rules about how many people can be put in the holding cells, and how detainees are supposed to receive clean drinking water, soap, "adequate meals" and sanitary conditions, she said.

New Times called the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector for a response to these complaints; an agent took our message and said we might receive a call back, but that the agency typically doesn't comment on pending lawsuits.

Check back here for updates on this case.

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