New York Times
By Fernanda Santos
August 18, 2016
In June 2015, legal and civil rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit in Federal District Court in Tucson accusing the Border Patrol of holding migrants in dirty and crowded cells at stations in southeastern Arizona, after they were caught illegally entering the United States.
Late Wednesday, still images from surveillance video at the stations, offering a glimpse inside the cells, were publicly released. The videos were part of the evidence filed with the court during the discovery process and unsealed by Judge David C. Bury last week.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of migrants by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council and other groups.
Some photographs show migrants lying shoulder to shoulder on bare concrete floors while neighboring cells are empty, sleeping pads stacked against walls. In one image, a man drinks from a gallon jug, apparently the only source of water for all the detainees in his cell. In another, men sleep against a toilet stall.
The screenshots also show a mother changing a baby’s diaper on top of a thin thermal blanket set against the concrete. The blankets are migrants’ sole protection against the cold temperatures; they took to calling the cells “hieleras” — Spanish for iceboxes.
A law firm representing the plaintiffs — three migrants who were housed in the stations — reviewed thousands of hours of video last fall, taking screenshots that underscored the unsafe, unsanitary conditions alleged in the lawsuit. Those are the screenshots being released.
In court filings, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, United States Customs and Border Protection, said the conditions at the stations must be “considered as a whole, rather than in selective snapshots provided by the plaintiffs.”
The stations “operate around the clock, 24 hours each day, seven days a week,” the filing says, but because they are busiest at night, the stations “do not provide traditional sleeping accommodations, nor is it possible to turn off the lights at night.”
The agency denied that the cells are cold (the temperature in the stations “generally ranges between 68-80 degrees”) or dirty (“trash sometimes accumulates for a short time”).
“When the operational interests of Border Patrol are also taken into account,” the filing says, “the evidence clearly shows that Tucson Sector Border Patrol stations do not violate the constitutional rights of detainees.”
Experts hired by the plaintiffs to visit the stations and review the images reached a different conclusion. One of them was Eldon Vail, a former secretary for the Department of Corrections in Washington State. In his report to the court, also released late Wednesday, Mr. Vail said the conditions in the cells were “unnecessarily harsh, dangerous and contrary to accepted industry practices and standards.”
Another expert, Robert W. Powitz, a forensic sanitarian, wrote, “The unclean, unhygienic and unduly cold conditions in which people are held at these stations serves no legitimate purpose and creates an unjustifiable risk of harm to detainees.”
The short-term cells have concrete benches, but not beds; sinks and toilets, but no showers. They were “not designed for sleeping” and detainees “should not be held for more than 12 hours,” according to a Border Patrol manual referred to in the lawsuit.
However, a report released by the American Immigration Council on Thursday, based on federal statistics obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, showed that people are held much longer in Tucson and several of the other Border Patrol jurisdictions. More than 80 percent of the migrants detained from Sept. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31, 2015, in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo regions of Texas and the Yuma and Tucson sectors in Arizona were held for at least 24 hours.
Judge Bury released the photographs despite objections by the Department of Homeland Security.
In a motion, department lawyers argued that criminals could use the times and dates stamped on the screenshots to identify surveillance patterns in the detention areas, “facilitating escape and other criminal activities based on when agents and other individuals appear in the footage.” The lawyers also said the photos could tip off smugglers to the capacity of the detention facilities in the stations, allowing them to plan their illegal crossings accordingly.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com