Original article appeared in Courthouse News Service.
By TIM HULL
TUCSON (CN) – Border Patrol jails in its busy Tucson sector are overcrowded, dirty and cold, lacking food, water, medical care and basic sanitation and hygiene, a federal class action alleges.
Norlan Flores, a Nicaraguan twice detained in the Tucson sector, and two Jane Doe plaintiffs still in immigration jail, sued the Secretary of Homeland Security and other federal officials on Tuesday.
About 18 percent of the 479,371 Border Patrol arrests on the Mexico border were in the Tucson sector in 2014.
Thousands of undocumented immigrants caught crossing the often deadly desert are kept in short-term holding centers the plaintiffs call “inhumane and punitive.”
“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,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs, represented by Morrison & Foerster and four civil rights groups, say that many of them “fled dangerous conditions in their home countries, and are seized following a lengthy, difficult, and perilous journey.”
“They arrive exhausted, thirsty and hungry, and often are suffering from dehydration, heat stroke, diarrhea, bleeding and blistered feet, and other health conditions requiring medical attention,” the complaint states. “A substantial number of the women are recent victims of sexual assault. Many other adults and children arrive traumatized by the dangers they have escaped and the harms they have suffered during their journey to the United States. The conditions in the holding cells – including the inadequate supply of water and food, the extremely cold temperatures and the lack of access to medical care and medicines – further endanger those already suffering from exposure-related medical impairments and other pre-existing conditions.”
Immigration jails were not designed, originally, for punishment, but to ensure that immigrants would appear for their immigration hearings.
The plaintiffs say that detainees are often denied the basic “ability to get adequate sleep – if any at all.”
“Defendants do not equip holding cells with beds and generally do not provide detainees mattresses or other bedding,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants leave holding cell lights on at all hours, and detained individuals must attempt to sleep on cold concrete floors and hard benches. The cells are often so overcrowded that not all detainees are able to lie down and instead must sit or stand through the night.”
The plaintiffs say they are often denied clean drinking water and food, and that Border Patrol agents regularly ignore their pleas and complaints.
“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,” the lawsuit states.
“The overall conditions of defendants’ holding cells deny the humanity of those held within their walls, with such intolerable results as the denial of prescribed pain medication to a pregnant woman with a broken foot; the failure to provide medical attention to another woman suffering heavy vaginal bleeding; children as young as four years old stripped of warm clothing and left crying through the night from cold and hunger; detainees sick, exhausted, and shivering, pleading for guards to turn up the temperature; and the repeated response of agents that these conditions are the price to be paid for coming to United States.”
The plaintiffs seek class certification and an injunction to stop the Border Patrol from subjecting them to “illegal and unconstitutional conditions.”
They ask the court to order DHS and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to provide, among other things:
– “bed and bedding to all detainees held overnight in any Tucson Sector CBP facility”;
– “access to soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, paper towels, sanitary napkins, diapers, showers and towels if held overnight, and sanitation”;
– “clean drinking water and nutritionally adequate meals”;
– “standards with respect to cell occupancy rates, temperature control, and all federal fire, health and safety standards”;
– adequate screening for “medical, dental, and mental health conditions that need immediate treatment”;
– and “timely and competent responses to health care emergencies.”
Lead attorney Harold McElhinny with Morrison & forester is assisted by attorneys with the ACLU Foundation of Arizona, the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Law Center, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Border Patrol officials in Washington, D.C., and in the Tucson sector did not immediately respond to a request for comment.