Legislation Would Set Minimum Standards to Prevent Abuse and Neglect by Ensuring Detainees Have Adequate Food, Shelter and Medical Care

Washington, D.C. – December 12, 2013 – U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) today introduced legislation that would set minimum standards to ensure that people held in Customs and Border Protection (CPB) short-term detention facilities are not subjected to inhumane conditions.

“No human being held by United States authorities should ever be exposed to hunger, extreme temperatures, physical or verbal abuse, or denial of medical care,” Senator Boxer said.

Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice) attorneys brought this issue to the attention of Senator Boxer in May of this year and provided draft language that was eventually introduced as an amendment during the debate over immigration reform, but it was never considered by the Senate. “This legislation is desperately needed because right this minute there are women and children-some with serious medical needs-being held in Guantanamo-like conditions in CBP detention facilities,” said Joseph Anderson, Director of Litigation for AI Justice.

In recent years, CBP has routinely violated its own policies and committed grave civil and human rights abuses against both migrants and U.S. Citizens held in CBP facilities. These abuses include verbal abuse, denial of medical care, prolonged sleep deprivation, prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures, deprivation of food and water, overcrowding and destruction of detainees’ important personal possessions including legal documents, medicines and forms of personal identification.

“We urge Congress to pass legislation that will once and for all put an end to Customs and Border Protection’s abusive treatment of immigrant detainees.  It is unconscionable that employees of our own government are engaged in the sort of human rights violations the US regularly condemns abroad,” said AI Justice Executive Director Cheryl Little.

AI Justice has filed administrative complaints with CBP and DHS on behalf of eight individuals, ranging in age from 20 to 36 years of age, who were held in abusive conditions by CBP in Texas, in what CBP officers called the “hieleras.”  In English, hielera means the “freezer” or “icebox.”

The hieleras turned out to be freezing cold cells where AI Justice’s clients were locked up along with hundreds of other immigrant women and children. The hieleras had no beds, no chairs and a single sink and toilet sitting in plain view in the cell. The temperature in the hieleras was so cold that the women’s lips chapped and split, their fingers and toes turned blue and they shook uncontrollably from the cold.  Along with the other detainees they were forced to sleep on the concrete floor without even a blanket.  Bright overhead lights were left on twenty-four hours a day, making sleep virtually impossible.

The detainees had no access to a bath or shower or any other facility to clean themselves. They were not provided with even the most basic personal hygiene products like a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb or soap.  Nor were they ever provided with a change of clothing.  Two women were menstruating while in the hieleras but were not provided with an adequate supply of sanitary napkins.  As a result their undergarments became stained with blood and smelled. The detainees were fed only once or twice a day, and received no more than a single sandwich. They were constantly hungry and suffered headaches and dizziness as a result.

The only water available to them was provided in a single thermos shared by all the detainees. There were no cups to drink the water. The water smelled like bleach and burned the throats of some of the women when they drank it.

Two of the women represented by AI Justice are diabetics whose medication was confiscated at the time they were apprehended by CBP and was never returned.  Both suffered medical problems as a result of being deprived of their prescriptions and one of the women passed out twice in the hieleras.  She struck her head and was injured the second time she passed out.

The women were kept in the hieleras for as long as thirteen days. To escape the hieleras, many of these women ultimately agreed to sign documents they could neither read nor understand. The documents they signed turned out to be orders for their expedited removal from the United States which stated the individuals admitted to having no legal basis to remain in the United States. In reality, many legitimate asylum seekers-who have already endured violence and trauma-came to the United States seeking refuge, but instead were coerced into signing these orders.  In fact all eight clients represented by AI Justice were determined to have the right to seek asylum here and to legally remain in the United States while their asylum petitions are considered.

“We have now spoken with more than one hundred women who described being subjected to the same inhumane and abusive treatment in the hieleras. At this point there can be no mistake that this treatment is calculated and systematically carried out by CBP.  This is not the lone act of one or two bad officers.  We have an entire sector of CBP engaged in the unlawful abuse of these young women,” said Anderson.