TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – A class action trial over conditions at Border Patrol detention facilities in Arizona kicked off Monday with testimony from an expert witness who said he has never seen more overcrowded holding cells.
Eldon Vail, a corrections expert with more than 30 years of experience who visited eight Border Patrol facilities last year, recalled seeing dozens of immigrants huddled under mylar blankets in cells that should house fewer than 10.
“I have not seen any place with the conditions I have seen in the Border Patrol facilities,” Vail told U.S. District Judge David C. Bury.
The trial deals with a 2015 lawsuit brought by immigrants represented by the ACLU of Arizona, the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Morrison & Foerster.
Immigrant men and women told those groups they were detained in cold, overcrowded, filthy cells for extended periods of time, without access to beds, soap, showers, adequate meals and water, or medical care, in violation of constitutional standards and Border Patrol’s own policies.
Eldon testified that one problem is that Customs and Border Protection cannot pass detainees along to their next destination as fast as they need to. Most immigrants go from Border Patrol custody to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which feeds a network of mostly private detention facilities across the nation.
But a recent uptick in detainees has led to a significant increase in the number of detainees in custody longer than 72 hours, Vail said.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find a bed in ICE for those folks who are ready to go,” he testified.
With the thin mats, lights on all night, noise and overcrowding, Vail said the conditions inside the cells could lead to sleep deprivation.
“When you layer in the level of overcrowding we have seen, it becomes that much more difficult to sleep … It would be very, very difficult to sleep in those conditions,” Vail said.
The suit, brought during the Obama administration, pertains to Border Patrol facilities in the agency’s Tucson sector.
“For over four years, we have been gathering evidence of the substandard conditions to which thousands of individuals have been subjected,” Mary Kenney, directing attorney of litigation with the American Immigration Council, said in a statement.
“We are looking forward to presenting this evidence to the judge and are seeking a permanent solution to these unconstitutional conditions.”
The trial is expected to last two weeks.