Immigration and civil rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Border Patrol in June 2015 asserting that detainees have endured abhorrent conditions while in short-term detention facilities. Now, recently released photos and expert testimony offer persuasive evidence supporting these claims.
In mid-August, Federal District Court Judge David C. Bury, presiding over the class-action suit Doe v. Johnson accusing U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of human right violations in Arizona’s southeastern sector, released expert testimony and video stills documenting the appalling and unacceptable conditions in short-term detention centers there. He struck down a motion by CBP to withhold the evidence from the public, finding for the plaintiffs and the Arizona Republic who argued for First Amendment access to court proceedings and government practices.
The still images—screenshots taken from thousands of hours of surveillance footage collected last fall—show overcrowded cells while others are empty, migrants huddled under thin thermal blankets on the floor, a mother using the same sort of blanket as protection from the cold concrete as she changed her baby’s diaper. The cells in which these migrants are detained were not designed to hold people indefinitely—they have concrete floors, no beds, cold temperatures, lights on continually—and Border Patrol policy dictates that detainees cannot be held in them for more than 12 hours. Yet records show that they are held for days at a time in harsh and inhumane conditions before being deported or transferred to long-term facilities to await court proceedings (often expedited through Operation Streamline) and likely deportation.
The experts who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs offered testimony that corroborates the conclusions drawn from these disturbing photos. Former Secretary for the Washington State Department of Corrections Eldon Vail reported that the conditions were “unnecessarily harsh, dangerous and contrary to accepted practices and standards.” Forensic sanitarian Robert W. Powitz submitted that “the unclean, unhygienic and unduly cold conditions in which people are held…serves no legitimate purpose and creates an unjustifiable risk of harm to detainees.”
Sadly, the deplorable conditions of these detention centers come as no surprise to the staff of the KBI. The migrants at the comedor and shelter share their stories of the crossing, apprehension at the border and elsewhere, the detention experience, and deportation—the entire journey often riddled with indignities and outright abuses. The KBI has been collecting this data since its inception in 2008, and contributed to and co-published two reports detailing the findings. (Please see: http://www.jesuit.org/jesuits/wp-content/uploads/Kino_FULL-REPORT_web.pdf and http://jesuits.org/Assets/Publications/File/REPORT_2015_Our_Values_on_the_Line.pdf. )
The testimonies of migrants at the KBI confirm the recently released evidence of the lawsuits and highlight urgent concerns for immigration policy more broadly. Specifically, inadequate legal representation as well as expedited prosecutions (wherein as many as 80 cases are processed in an afternoon) mean that migrants are criminalized without considering the reasons for their migration or their eligibility for asylum. And family separation continues to be a heartbreaking outcome for so many detained individuals. The KBI continues to address these various issues through advocacy, education and research. In the meantime, raising the standards in short-term detention facilities and requiring accountability—potential outcomes if the lawsuit is successful—is a critical step in creating a more humane and just immigration system.
MORE INFORMATION: The lawsuit was filed 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. For more details about the released photographs and testimony, please see the following links:
- Photo Exhibits in Doe v. Johnson: https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/content/photo-exhibits-doe-v-johnson.
- American Immigration Council Press Release: https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/news/court-orders-release-graphic-photos-arizona-border-patrol-detention-facilities-and-damning.
- Print story and video from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/us/photos-show-conditions-in-arizona-border-detention-centers.html and http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000004600570/photos-of-migrant-holding-cells-released.html.