Class-action lawsuit alleges overcrowding, filthy conditions for detained migrants in Tucson

Original article appeared in: Fierce Homeland Security.

By Dibya Sarkar

Several legal groups filed a class-action lawsuit last week against the Customs and Border Protection agency for allegedly keeping undocumented men, women, and children in freezing, overcrowded and filthy detention facilities in Arizona.

The American Immigration Council, National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Morrison & Foerster LLP filed the suit June 8 on behalf of two unidentified immigrants and a man named Norland Flores “and all others similarly situated,” who were all detained at the Tucson Border Patrol Station.

The suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, said such conditions violate the U.S. Constitution and CBP’s own policies. It names Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, and Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher, among others, as defendants.

“They have been packed into overcrowded and filthy holding cells with the lights glaring day and night; stripped of outer layers of clothing and forced to suffer in brutally cold temperatures; deprived of beds, bedding, and sleep; denied adequate food, water, medicine and medical care, and basic sanitation and hygiene items such as soap, sufficient toilet paper, sanitary napkins, diapers, and showers; and held incommunicado in these conditions for days,” according to the lawsuit (pdf).

The suit said many undocumented individuals who cross into the U.S. are fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries and often suffer dehydration, heat stroke and other ailments requiring medical attention. A significant number of women are victims of sexual assault.

The suit goes into detail about the harsh conditions awaiting them in the Border Patrol detention facilities. “The inhumane and dangerous conditions in the Tucson Sector facilities result in irreparable, ongoing physical and psychological harm to plaintiffs and putative class members and serious risk of future harm,” it said.

The suit also alleged that Border Patrol officials deny individuals access to attorneys and force the undocumented immigrants to immigration-related documents, sometimes threatening them with “continued or indefinite detention” if they refuse to sign.

Additionally, detainees don’t have any way to lodge complaints about the facility’s conditions and their mistreatment, the suit claimed.

“Thousands of people are subjected to these inhumane and intolerable conditions every year,” Mary Kenney, senior staff attorney with the American Immigration Council, said in the group’s press release June 10. “Our investigation revealed that these filthy, overcrowded and punitive conditions are the norm in all eight Border Patrol stations within the Tucson Sector.”

“Agents make every effort to ensure that those in our custody are given food, water, and medical attention as needed,” said CBP in a statement issued to the Arizona Republic. The agency is committed to “policies that protect human life and treat individuals with dignity and respect,” said the statement, which was part of a June 10 article regarding the lawsuit.

The group said the government’s own standards state that such individuals shouldn’t be held in Border Patrol facilities for more than 12 hours, but the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they were held there much longer. It cited Border Patrol records that showed that the agency detained more than 58,000 for 24 hours or longer in holding cells in the Tucson sector during a six-month period in 2013. Of these individuals, 24,000 were held for 48 hours or longer.

“It is important to break through the secrecy that surrounds these holding facilities,” Colette Reiner Mayer, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, said in the release. “No American would accept how the government treats people whose only crime is wanting a better life.”