Images Ordered Released Confirm Immigrants’ Stories of Abusive Practices by U.S. Border Patrol
By Nora Preciado, NILC staff attorney
AUGUST 19, 2016
For years, we’ve heard accounts of inhumane conditions at the U.S. Border Patrol’s processing facilities, or hieleras (Spanish for iceboxes) as these short-term detention facilities have come to be known. Detainees described being held in frigid, overcrowded, filthy cells for days on end and being denied food, water, medical care, and basic hygiene necessities.
These reports have largely been dismissed by immigration authorities as being merely anecdotal, since the people who described their experience in detention could present no evidence to actually show what it’s like inside the hieleras. But newly released images and expert declarations unsealed by the federal district court in Tucson, Arizona, provide a rare glimpse at the deplorable and, in fact, unconstitutional conditions tens of thousands of men, women, and children are forced to endure each year. Now the public can finally see for themselves that what we’ve been hearing for years is true.
In my eleven years as an attorney, I’ve visited many immigration detention facilities, including privately run facilities, ICE facilities, and others. In my experience, the abuses endured by our plaintiffs and scores of other Border Patrol detainees, whom I have interviewed during prior visits, rank among the worst I’ve ever heard of and now seen.
The cells are called hieleras for good reason. Our plaintiff Jane Doe 1 recounts having to huddle together with her sister on a cold concrete floor to make it through the night. She doesn’t know what she would have done without her sister, who provided the only meager source of heat throughout the night.
The newly released evidence makes clear that her experience is not uncommon. The photographs show people curled up into balls attempting to sleep on crowded, cold concrete floors and benches, sometimes with nothing to cover them, and sometimes covered by only a mylar sheet.
Tired men and women—dehydrated and famished from their journeys—are often denied water. When they do get water, it tastes foul, almost undrinkable, and detainees aren’t always provided drinking cups.
One of the photographs clearly shows a man drinking out of a jug. From video footage, we were able to see that this same jug was shared by about a dozen men over a period of five days. Compounding the unsanitary conditions, the water jugs can be seen placed near bathrooms and on top of toilet tanks in some of the cells.
After grueling days spent in the desert, detainees are not allowed access to basic hygiene items like soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, or showers. Many detainees describe needing medical attention and never getting it.
Our lawsuit describes children as young as four years old being stripped of warm outer layers of 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 agents responding that the harsh conditions are punishment for their having come to the United States.
One woman reported that she did not receive a single clean diaper for her child. She was finally forced to remove her daughter’s soiled diaper—with nowhere to dispose of it and no replacement available. Some of the photographs released show women and children in filthy cells, children crawling near toilets in the small cells, a woman changing a diaper on the concrete floor with only a mylar sheet as protection. And we know that the images the court ordered released cannot capture all the deplorable conditions people detained by the Border Patrol have had to endure all these years.
These conditions are inhumane and unconstitutional. The Border Patrol fails to adhere to its own inadequate policies, breaking its own rules as it packs men, women, and children into filthy, freezing facilities.
This is un-American. We live in a society in which all people, regardless of where they were born or how much money they have, should live free from fear of being abused by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, for tens of thousands of people detained by the Border Patrol, this simply isn’t the reality.
The images unsealed by the court leave no room for debate the fact that thousands of immigrants are subjected to inhumane and unconstitutional conditions by the Border Patrol. We hope that when they see the graphic evidence released this week, the public will join us in calling for the Border Patrol to stop treating people in ways that aren’t just unconstitutional, but also un-American. We urgently need meaningful and lasting reforms that put an end to these abuses, hold the agency accountable, and ensure that people are treated with dignity.