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December 01, 2015

Families Report Abuse in Border Patrol Detention Facilities, Despite Court Ruling

The Obama Administration’s policy of detaining women and children who seek protection in the United States has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months. In July a federal district court ruled in Flores v. Johnson that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the agency first charged with detaining families, had “wholly failed” to provide “safe and sanitary” holding cells for immigrant women, children, and babies.  Judge Dolly Gee, who presided over the case, gave the federal government until October 23 to remedy its detention practices. 

Not only has the government failed to reform CBP detention facilities, women who have been detained at these facilities with their children report systemic abuses.

A few weeks ago we spent a week in Dilley, Texas, at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility where many immigrant families are transferred after CBP incarceration. The families we spoke with were detained by CBP after the October 23 deadline, and painted a bleak picture of facilities that appear to remain unchanged, despite the Flores ruling.

The stories we heard there were harrowing; mothers detained in CBP facilities reported being separated from their children, shuffled from one facility to the next, and jailed in unsanitary cells. The vast majority of these families do not speak English and are unaware of their legal rights.

Many of the immigrant families held in detention fled unimaginable horrors in their home countries—extreme domestic violence, threats against their lives, and attempted gang recruitment of elementary school-aged children.  Unsurprisingly, many now turn to the United States for asylum protection. 

Families who arrive at the United States’ southern border have navigated hundreds of miles through dangerous terrain, often with no more than the clothes on their backs. Once in CBP custody, the families are transferred to holding facilities the women refer to as las hieleras, or, the iceboxes. They told us that the iceboxes are cells devoid of beds and pillows and kept at frigid temperatures, where individuals wearing wet clothing are forced to share scarce sheets of aluminum foil for warmth.  Women reported that families are packed into crowded cells with little room to move or lay down, and lights are kept on 24 hours a day. In our conversations, we heard that women and children are not permitted to bathe or brush their teeth, and toilet paper and soap frequently run out.  Perhaps most damagingly, women say that they were prohibited from seeing their young boys for the length of their incarcerations.

It is no wonder virtually every child who had cycled through las hieleras was sick when we saw them at Dilley.  Ana* told us that she was detained in la hielera with an eight-day old baby who constantly cried and had bright red skin.  Ana says that the baby was forced to lie on the bare cement floor without a blanket, while its nursing mother was given only ham sandwiches to eat.  Other women in the cell reportedly begged CBP officers for help, and offered to let the newborn baby and her mother be processed first, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. On top of that, Ana claims she was forbidden from seeing her 9-year old son, who suffers from asthma but was not provided any medication despite repeated requests.

Ana reported that CBP officers routinely attempted to get women to sign deportation papers, threatening that those who refused would be detained for an additional month. Under Flores, CBP may not detain a child for more than three to five days.

The CBP nightmare doesn’t end at the hieleras.  The families we met at Dilley say they were transferred next to a facility called la perrera because of its resemblance to a dog kennel.  We heard from Maria* that CBP arbitrarily separated all children ages six and over from their mothers without warning or explanation. Maria added that she pleaded numerous times to see her son, but was told to “let him become a man.”

Maria also reported that CBP officers conducted roll calls all night long, forcing sleeping families to line up in front of their cells.  She told us that if women didn’t awaken quickly enough, CBP officers kicked them in their sides as terrified, exhausted children cried. 

The United States should immediately comply with the Flores court’s ruling by instituting standards to improve these practices.  Moreover, after CBP processing and screening, families seeking asylum should not be held in detention—period. For those who need appearance support or social services, the government should refer families to community-based alternative programs, which have been proven effective in ensuring appearance and are less costly than detention.  

Our nation has a long served as a beacon for the persecuted. Unfortunately, we have abandoned these ideals by forcing women and children who seek protection to live without dignity. It’s not too late to turn that around.

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of the women who helped with this story.