Immigrants come to Arizona just as they came to Ellis Island – the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And U.S. Border Patrol crowds them into bone-chilling, squalid cells, denying them food, water, medical care, and their constitutional right to due process.
On June 8, 2015, human rights groups including the ACLU of Arizona and the American Immigration Council filed a class action lawsuit to force Border Patrol to improve “its brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement,” says ACLU attorney James Lyall.
“This is the first case of its kind in that it seeks a court order to fundamentally reform Border Patrol’s notorious detention facilities,” says Lyall.
The lawsuit applies to detention facilities across the busy Tucson Sector, but the organizations filing the suit hope that if they win, it will spark reform along the entire border.
“The case therefore has the potential to impact tens of thousands of men, women, and children every year – among them asylum seekers, victims of sexual violence, and even U.S. citizen children,” says Lyall.
The detention stations in question are called short-term holding facilities, but that’s “a misnomer,” says Mary Kenney, senior staff attorney with the American Immigration Council.
In the first six months of 2013, the Tucson sector detained more than 72,000 men, women, and children. Of those, 58,000 were detained for 24 hours or longer, 25,000 for 48 hours or longer, and 7,839 for three or more days. One person was detained for more than 15 weeks.
These cells are not designed for sleeping: They contain no beds, and lights are typically kept on 24 hours a day. “They really are concrete cells with concrete benches along the walls… and toilets and a sink, and that’s all,” says Kenney.
What’s more, Border Patrol agents confiscate migrants’ warm clothing, then deliberately blast the air-conditioning at such frigid temperatures the cells are known as hieleras – ice boxes.
“Our lawsuit describes children as young as 4 years old stripped of all warm clothing and left crying through the night from cold and hunger,” says Nora Preciado, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “Detainees sick, exhausted and shivering, pleading for guards to turn up the temperature in the cells, and agents responding in turn that the harsh conditions are the punishment for coming to the U.S.”
The five organizations involved interviewed the three plaintiffs in the case, plus 75 former detainees. Lawyers say they were struck by the consistency of the detainees’ descriptions – both among each other and with thousands of other complaints in detention facilities nationwide.
“In many ways, these people are subjected to conditions that are far worse than convicted murderers and rapists, and they haven’t been convicted of anything,” says Colette Reiner Mayer, a partner with Morrison & Foerster, which also filed the lawsuit.
In the past, Border Patrol has denied some of the accusations while acknowledging others were “absolutely spot on.”
Yet the government has not taken adequate action to remedy the abuses, Lyall says. “With the filing of this lawsuit, it’s no longer going to be possible for Border Patrol to continue denying and ignoring its inhumane and unconscionable mistreatment of individuals in its custody.”