Human Rights Lawyers Blast Border Patrol

TUCSON (CN) — Newly released photos and documents validate longtime assertions that Border Patrol agents in Tucson subject immigrants to lengthy detention in dirty cells crammed with people, and medical neglect one expert called “unthinkable.”
     The still images from video surveillance cameras in the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol — made public as part of a class-action lawsuit — offer a rare glimpse into detention areas so cold that immigrants call them hieleras, or iceboxes.
     “We know that these holding cells are horrible, that they don’t meet the minimum standards in terms of how overcrowded they are,” Guillermo Cantor, deputy director of research at the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C., said Thursday. “There’s not enough room for people to sleep there and there aren’t even beds because they are not meant to be used for overnight custody.”
     The council is part of a coalition of legal and civil rights groups that sued the Department of Homeland Security in June 2015, on behalf of detainees challenging inhumane conditions in detention centers. Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, fought to keep the images sealed, claiming they would jeopardize security and invade the privacy of detainees.
     The federal agencies say they do not comment on pending litigation.
     The still images show immigrants, whose faces are blurred to prevent identification, sitting on benches and lying on the concrete floor. A woman is changing a child’s diaper on the floor, which is strewn with trash and aluminum sheets detainees use to keep warm.
     Other previously sealed court documents include testimony from Eldon Vail, a former corrections administrator with more than 30 years’ experience. One of several experts who inspected Border Patrol stations as part of the litigation, Vail said he found conditions to be “harsh” and in violation of standard industry practices.
     “The absence of medical screening upon arrival is unthinkable,” he said. “Sufficient food, water and clothing are fundamental to safe, secure and humane operation.”
     Robert Powitz, an expert on prison sanitation, backed up Vail’s contentions in a separate declaration in the lawsuit, Doe v Jeh Johnson, as did Dr. Joe Goldenson, past president of the California chapter of the American Correctional Health Services Association.
     Vail noted that the cells are intended for short-term detentions: a maximum of 10 hours.
     But Border Patrol data show that in the Tucson Sector alone, from June 10 to Sept. 28, 2015, about 14,000 of 17,000 immigrants were detained for more than 12 hours. Another 2,800 were detained for more than 36 hours, and about 1,000 for more than 48 hours.
     The Border Patrol numbers are in line with findings from the American Immigration Council, which has tracked such data for years.
     In its latest report, the Immigration Council found that the 262-mile Tucson sector of the Border Patrol, which covers most of Arizona, is not the only one holding immigrants longer than 12 hours.
     “The government’s own policy is 12 hours, and they just haven’t been abiding by it,” said Colette Reiner Mayer, with Morrison & Foerster, the Bay Area law firm representing the plaintiffs.
     The Immigration Council obtained data from all nine Border Patrol sectors in Arizona, California and Texas through the Freedom of Information Act. Data reviewed covers Sept. 1, 2014 to Aug. 31, 2015.
     Coupled with the photos, the report shows that undocumented immigrants are subjected to lengthy detention all along the Southwest border.
     “It’s really not a rare, isolated occurrence,” Cantor said.
     In all of the sectors, more than 227,000 people, or 67 percent of detainees, were held for more than 24 hours; about 93,500 for more than 48 hours; and 44,000 for more than 72 hours.
     The high number of unaccompanied minors and families arriving from Central America in 2014 may have contributed to higher numbers in some sectors, including the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
     The release of the evidence was a step forward in a long legal battle for public awareness, attorney Mayer said.
     The coalition seeks to improve treatment of detainees. A legal victory would mean the Border Patrol “can’t hold people for longer than a certain period of time without providing them with beds and providing them with sanitary conditions,” Cantor said.
     “In reality, I think it would mean they can’t hold people in these facilities for longer than 12 hours.”
     Assisting the American Immigration Council are the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco and the American Civil Liberties in Arizona.

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