Original article can be found in the Washington Post
Judge: Lawsuit saying Central American migrants are held in filthy, inhumane conditions can go forward
By Jerry Markon
Lawyers for undocumented Central American immigrants who have flocked to the United States since 2014 have won an early round in their legal battle to prove that the migrants were held in filthy, inhumane conditions at U.S. Border Patrol stations.
A federal judge in Arizona this week allowed a lawsuit over the alleged mistreatment to go forward and granted the case class-action status, which allows the lawyers to interview far more migrants and gather more evidence about their treatment. The Obama administration had sought to dismiss the case.
The lawsuit says immigrants at border patrol facilities near Tucson were subjected to harsh conditions in the days after they crossed the southwest border, sleeping in crowded, dirty and freezing cells, deprived of sleep and denied basic hygiene items such as showers, soap and sanitary napkins for women. The complaint — filed in June on behalf of three migrants by four immigrant advocacy groups and a law firm in U.S. District Court in the District of Arizona — also says the migrants were held virtually incommunicado, without access to telephones or legal counsel. It alleges that the mistreatment violated the U.S. Constitution and Department of Homeland Security policies.
“Defendants’ regular use of these filthy, cold, and often overcrowded holding cells for longer-term detention is dangerous, inhumane, and punitive,” said the complaint, which names top officials at DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is part of DHS. “Defendants systematically deny Plaintiffs and putative class members’ basic hygiene items. Detainees in Tucson Sector holding cells have no access to soap, showers, towels, toothpaste, or toothbrushes. Cells are dirty and not regularly or properly cleaned and are not equipped with waste receptacles.”
DHS officials declined to comment Wednesday but have repeatedly vowed that all illegal immigrants would be treated humanely. “We must enforce our immigration laws in a fair and humane manner, consistent with our values as Americans,” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement in June.
In legal papers, the government argued that the Arizona lawsuit should be thrown out on legal and constitutional grounds and cited the demands of keeping up with the spike in unaccompanied minors and families that have fled violence and poverty in Central America. More than 100,000 families with adults and children have made the journey across the southwest border since the start of last year, and the numbers have spiked again in recent months.
”Border Patrol stations are not designed for long-term care or detention; rather they are short-term facilities, and every effort is made to promptly process, transfer, or remove those in custody at the stations as quickly as is appropriate and operationally feasible,” government attorneys argued. “Even accepting plaintiffs’ allegations as true, periods of crowding may occur due to circumstances out of Border Patrol’s control. This does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.”
In the months since the lawsuit was filed, customs and border protection has also issued national standards governing its interaction with detainees, which include requirements that they be given proper meals and clean water and be allowed to maintain appropriate hygiene.
“As highly accomplished and dedicated law enforcement professionals, CBP personnel are committed to ensuring the safety, security, and care of people in our custody,’’ the agency’s commissioner, R. Gil Kerlikowske, said in October when he announced the new standards.
Advocates for immigrants have long contended that detainees are mistreated, and the issue has gained even more resonance with the Obama administration’s recent deportation raids targeting the Central American migrants. The raids — in which 121 adults and children were taken into custody over the New Year’s weekend — have triggered furious opposition from advocates and many Democrats.
In the Arizona case, U.S. District Judge David C. Bury — while not weighing in on the merits of the arguments — said the allegations of mistreatment deserved their day in court. “Whether such deprivations are reasonable in light of the limited duration and purpose of (Customs and Border Protection) detention, as Defendants assert, requires weighing the evidence on both sides,” he wrote in an order Monday.
The judge said anyone detained for one or more night at a border patrol facility in the agency’s Tucson sector is potentially eligible to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, one of the groups that filed the suit, said that will enable lawyers to track down far more than the more than 100 detainees and former detainees they’ve interviewed so far. Those interviewed include people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — where the vast majority of the migrant spike has originated — along with others from Nicaragua and Mexico. The suit was also brought by The American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU of Arizona, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and Morrison & Foerster LLP.
Hincapie said the judge’s order “is really significant in the sense that we clearly passed the initial hurdle.” The lawsuit ultimately seeks a judge’s order requiring the government to improve conditions in the processing centers in border patrol stations, where migrants have been held before being sent to longer-term facilities for possible deportation or released.
“These conditions are inhumane and outrageous,” Hincapie said.