The release comes after a months-long legal battle between Border Patrol and the National Immigration Law Center, the American Immigration Council, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona.
The images were taken from security footage and are exhibits in an ongoing lawsuit against the agency. Taken within eight Arizona facilities, spanning Nogales, Douglas, Naco, Casa Grande, and Tucson, it is one of the rare instances Border Patrol has been forced to share images from its holding cells.
Known as as hieleras–or iceboxes–by migrants because of their frigid temperature, those detained in the holding cells are given nothing to stay warm but “Mylar blankets,” which are easily torn, foil-like sheets. In one photo, a mother changes her baby’s diaper on top of Mylar sheets on the concrete floor, surrounded by garbage. In another image taken from the processing center in Tucson, migrants are wrapped in Mylar sheets huddled together on the concrete floor. The cell is so crowded that there is no room to move.
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These processing centers have been found to be unsuitable for overnight detention, as they do not have beds. The centers “are extremely cold, frequently overcrowded, and routinely lack adequate food, water, and medical care,” according to a 2015 report from the American Immigration Council.
The facilities are intended to temporarily detain immigrants while their criminal records are checked, their fingerprints are taken, and the next step in their case is determined. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol’s parent agency, has no statutes or regulations governing short-term facilities.
CBP has internal guidance regarding standards, specifications, and the operation of its facilities, including setting limits on the maximum length of time that a person should be held in a holding cell.
A 2008 CBP memorandum revealed that “a detainee should not be held for more than 12 hours” and should be moved “promptly.” A new American Immigration Council study, released in conjunction with the security footage photos, found that migrants are routinely kept overnight in poor conditions.
Using government data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the American Immigration Council found that Border Patrol regularly uses these facilities to detain people for prolonged periods.
“Over 80 percent of people detained by the Border Patrol in its Tucson Sector are held for over 24 hours, meaning that men, women and children are forced to sleep on concrete floors and hard benches in holding cells that lack beds and are not equipped for sleeping,” the organization reported.
Analyzing data on almost 327,000 immigrations from September 2014 to August 2015, the study reports that in the southwest Border Patrol sectors, 67 percent of detained immigrants were held in Border Patrol facilities for 24 hours or more. Almost 30 percent were held for 48 hours or more and 14 percent for 72 hours or more.
The American Immigration Council said the facilities’ conditions violate CBP’s policies and are alleged to violate the U.S. Constitution. Migrants endure freezing temperatures and are forced to sit and sleep on cold, concrete floors. According to CBP guidelines, those detained should be provided with snacks and meals, be given access to potable drinking water, should have access to bathrooms and toilet items, and be given necessary medical attention.
Agents must make “reasonable efforts” to provide a shower for detainees held for more than 72 hours and ensure detention cells are regularly cleaned and sanitized.
Evidence and testimonies gathered by the American Immigration Council found that migrants receive little or no food or clean drinking water. One of the images released Thursday shows a man drinking directly from a lone plastic gallon of water, presumably the only source of water for all those detained in the cell. The organization also reports that migrants are forced to stay in “overcrowded and unsanitary holding cells without basic hygiene items; denied adequate medical screening or care; denied communication with family members, legal counsel, or consulates; and coerced into signing deportation papers.”
The American Immigration Council’s findings add to accusations of inhumane treatment, abuse, and constitutional violations made by Border Patrol against migrants, including the abuse of children and significantly high rates of sexual misconduct. It remains unknown if Border Patrol will change its practices concerning the inhumane treatment of migrants in its custody.