Suit alleges U.S. violates rights of immigrant detainees

An important class action suit was filed in United States District Court for the District of Arizona last week alleging that U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement (CBP) officials have been massively violating the constitutional and human rights of detainees in Border Patrol lockups in the Tucson, Arizona sector of their operations.

The suit, filed by three specific plaintiffs as representative of a class of at least 75 and potentially tens of thousands, was filed by attorneys for the law firm of Morrison and Foerster LLP, the National Immigration Law Center, the American Immigration Council, the American Civil Liberties Council of Arizona, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Defendants are U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, R. Gil Kerlikowske, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Michael J. Fisher, Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, Jeffrey Self, Commander of the Arizona Joint Field Command, and Manuel Padilla Jr., Chief Patrol Agent for Border Patrol in the Tucson area.

The suit is focused on mistreatment of short-term detainees in the CBP lockups at several locations in the Tucson area. It comes after literally years of complaints about inhuman conditions and violation of the rights of men, women and children (some of the latter U.S. citizens) picked up by the Border Patrol, or arrested by local police and handed over to the Border Patrol, for years. These complaints have included media coverage, demonstrations, complaints from civil rights groups and even statements by members of the U.S. Congress, and at least two other suits in the recent past.

The detainees in question have not been indicted for any crime, and therefore detention cannot be punitive (i.e. have the purpose of punishing them for entering the United States “without inspection” over the border). They are only supposed to be held for a short while, theoretically no more than a day or two, and then passed on to other agencies. Especially recently, as many minors have been crossing into the United States through Mexico after fleeing violence in the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, many might qualify for asylum. U.S. and international law requires, also, that they be treated humanely and not be subjected to degrading or dangerous conditions in detention.

Yet the information provided in the plaintiffs’ initial brief in this suit clearly shows that detainees are often held in the Border Patrol holding cells for multiple days, and that personnel of the detention centers subject detainees to cruel treatment as a “punishment” for entering the United States “illegally”. Immigration agents, it should be noted, have no right or authority to “punish” anybody; this can only be done by a court via due process of law, as stipulated by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And none of the mistreated migrants had been so judged and sentenced.

Types of abuse documented in the plaintiffs’ brief, and attested to by many other detained migrants include:

  • Denying them medical care. Many migrants fall into the hands of “la Migra” in very poor physical shape after crossing the blazing hot and bone dry Sonoran desert, and arrive dehydrated, half starved or with conditions approaching heat stroke and other life threatening ailments. Some arrive pregnant, and in one case cited in the law suit, a women had been raped during her journey and had vaginal bleeding. These and others have been not only denied medical attention, but have been mocked and humiliated by U.S. personnel.
  • Denying them adequate food, water, sleep and sanitary conditions. The holding cells are often packed beyond capacity. There is no place to sleep except on concrete benches or on the floor. Toilets are too few. Food is inadequate and often inedible, and detainees cannot wash their hands between going to the toilet and eating or drinking water, creating a massive danger of infectious diseases. There is not enough clean water, which is especially serious for people who may be dehydrated.
  • Half freezing the detainees. Many detainees complain of “the icebox”, (“la heladera”, in Spanish) that staff of the Tucson area detention centers confiscate extra layers of clothing, keep the temperature in the holding cells extremely low, and do not provide adequate blankets for the shivering detainees. This is dangerous especially for small children and people suffering from health conditions as a result of their ordeal on the road.
  • Violation of the legal and constitutional rights of the detainees. Detainees are often not allowed to contact attorneys, and are being punished by cruel means although they have not been convicted by a court of law of any crime; this being a violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The suit asks for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to put an end to these barbaric, illegal and unconstitutional practices. Plaintiffs beg the court to recognize the “class” in whose name this suit is brought, and that such relief be applied not only to the cases of the three individual plaintiffs, but to the class as well, namely all migrants who have been, or are being, held in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Area lock ups.

Photo:  Rini Templeton


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.