TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Holding cells in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector are overcrowded, cold, smelly and never dark, two undocumented immigrants testified this week in a trial over conditions in the temporary cells.
“It smelled of armpits and feet. There was garbage on the floor,” one woman from El Salvador testified of her time in a cell in 2015 with about 20 other women.
The trial stems from a lawsuit filed in 2015 by three people, which U.S. District Judge David C. Bury eventually allowed to become a class action. It claims conditions in the Tucson Sector’s nine stations, which collectively held about 63,000 people in 2019, are unconstitutional.
Immigrants are routinely not fed, kept longer in the temporary cells than they are supposed to be, and forced to go without sleep and showers, the lawsuit claims.
The woman from El Salvador, identified in the trial as Witness A, was arrested four years ago with her sister in the Sonoran Desert near the small town of Sasabe, Arizona, after they entered the country from Mexico. She testified she was in custody of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for four days – longer than the Border Patrol target of holding immigrants “generally” no longer than 72 hours.
During cross-examination, the defense pointed out that Border Patrol records show she was only there for two days and that the cells have no clocks or windows that would allow detainees to gauge time.
Despite the records of her transfer to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after two days, the woman insisted she had been there for four days.
Photos and video from Border Patrol security cameras showed the floor of her cell was almost completely covered with women lying side by side under Mylar blankets with no space between the foam sleeping mats. The cells, most of which should house fewer than 10 people according to a prison conditions expert’s testimony, were also kept cold, and the lights were never off, making sleep difficult.
“What I remember most is how cold it was; I was shivering,” the woman said, so she asked for another blanket. “They said it was not a hotel to be asking for extra blankets. They said they only had one per person.”
She was given a small burrito, a cookie and juice, she said, but she didn’t eat the burrito because the expiration date was almost two years in the past. She was also not offered soap or other personal hygiene items, she said.
A second woman testified that she was seven weeks pregnant when caught by agents with her brother and boyfriend this past April. Despite constant vomiting, she was offered no medical care or examinations, she said.
After she was transferred to a second cell in Tucson a day later, she again asked to see a doctor but was told that vomiting is normal with pregnancy. She was housed in a cell with dozens of other women and eventually taken to a hospital, where a doctor prescribed medication for nausea.
She was given just one pill over the next 24 hours, she said.
On her second day in custody, she got a shower, but the large paper towel she received was only enough to dry her body, not her hair.
“I was cold because I couldn’t dry my hair, and I also washed my underwear when I bathed, and I put it back on wet,” she said.
Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents took just over 52,000 immigrants into custody in 2018 and about 63,000 in 2019.
The agency holds immigrants temporarily, sometimes fewer than 12 hours until their status can be determined. Many immigrants are repatriated to Mexico immediately, but others are held for transfer to other agencies.
Immigrants who are to be prosecuted criminally are transferred to the U.S. Marshals Service. Anyone seeking asylum from countries other than Mexico is transferred to ICE, and unaccompanied children to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The class is represented by attorneys from the California law firm Morrison & Foerster, the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU of Arizona, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The trial, which started Jan. 13, is scheduled for nine days.