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ACLU and Partners File Suit Against US Border Patrol for Savage Treatment in Detention Facilities

CBP Processing Unaccompanied Children. Photo: US Customs and Border Patrol
CBP Processing Unaccompanied Children. Photo: US Customs and Border Patrol
James Lyall,
Border Litigation Staff Attorney,
ACLU of Arizona
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June 10, 2015

Imagine fleeing your home, traveling thousands of miles to escape a life-threatening situation, unable to reunite with your children or feed your family. Along the way you are robbed, beaten, or sexually assaulted. You are forced to cross a barren desert, physically unable to carry enough water to survive.

Then imagine that you are detained by U.S. immigration officials — and subjected to prolonged abuse and mistreatment all over again while held incommunicado in government custody.

This is the experience of tens of thousands of men, women, and children who find themselves denied food, water, and medical care while detained in the frigid, filthy, and overcrowded detention facilities the U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates along the United States’ border with Mexico.

Earlier this week, the ACLU of Arizona and a group of civil rights organizations filed a class action lawsuit to end the daily brutality that Border Patrol inflicts on migrants in southern Arizona.

This suit aims to improve the horrific conditions in detention facilities in Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which covers 262 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and is traditionally one of the most heavily enforced. Every year, scores of people die attempting to pass through the Tucson Sector, while tens of thousands more are detained by the Border Patrol.

After countless complaints, government and NGO reports, and media accounts, there are few domestic human rights issues more thoroughly documented than the degrading conditions in Border Patrol’s notorious hieleras, or “iceboxes” — so named because of the freezing cold temperatures in which detainees are held for days on end. One man described lying on the cold, concrete floor of one of these facilities as “trying to sleep on ice.” To ensure maximum discomfort, individuals — including young children, some of them U.S. citizens — are stripped of outer layers of clothing and denied beds, mattress, and blankets.

The stories of the people detained in these conditions are horrific, their sheer consistency shocking: children left crying through the night from cold and hunger, or denied medical attention; detainees sick, exhausted, and shivering, pleading in vain for Border Patrol agents to turn up the temperature; others forced to lie next to filthy toilets or unable to even sit down due to overcrowding; and the repeated response of agents that this mistreatment is their punishment for coming to the U.S.

The government is well aware that this is going on. In response to a 2014 ACLU complaint, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security acknowledged “recurring problems” with Border Patrol detention conditions. Still, the government failed to implement any meaningful reforms and continues to deny access to outside observers, including attorneys.

Perhaps none of this should be surprising, given Border Patrol’s culture of abuse and refusal to hold agents accountable. Indeed, notwithstanding long-overdue efforts to reform local police departments, Congress and the Obama administration have continually given the U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the largest federal law enforcement agency – a free pass to violate rights on a massive scale and with near total impunity.

The persistence of punitive detention conditions is also the result of the government’s inhumane border enforcement strategy, which seeks to discourage migration by imposing “consequences,” or suffering, on immigrants — intentionally driving them into the deadliest desert regions, warehousing them in private prisons, and, in this case, brutalizing them in detention cells.

There is no justification for these savage policies. The systemic mistreatment of individuals in Border Patrol custody is both cruel and unconstitutional. We hope that this lawsuit will be the first step to holding Border Patrol accountable for this cruelty and abuse. No human being should have to suffer this way at the hands of the U.S. government.