Court Orders Government to Fix Inhumane Conditions in Border Patrol Holding Cells

November 18, 2016
Washington D.C. - A federal district court today found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is violating the constitutional rights of people detained in holding facilities in Arizona and ordered the government to take steps to improve conditions in these facilities, known as hieleras. This is the latest turn in a legal challenge filed in June 2015 by the American Immigration Council, National Immigration Law Center, Morrison & Foerster, the ACLU of Arizona, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

“This decision represents critical progress in rectifying CBP’s reprehensible treatment of individuals arriving in the United States,” according to Melissa Crow, Legal Director of the American Immigration Council. “Based on the damning evidence presented by the Plaintiffs, the Court properly rejected the agency’s excuses that it had done everything within its means to protect the health and safety of those in its custody.”

“Today is a victory for our plaintiffs, and a victory for the Constitution,” said Nora Preciado, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “No one, regardless of where they were born, should be subjected to the deplorable conditions our plaintiffs and other class members endured in the hieleras and we will ensure this order is implemented swiftly.”

Attorneys sued over the deplorable conditions in the 
hieleras, which were initially designed as temporary holding facilities for immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol agents within the Tucson Sector, which encompasses much of the Sonoran Desert. Photographic evidence of the conditions was released earlier this year after the Court rejected the federal government’s attempt to conceal them.

“In secret prisons, where basic human needs were withheld and detainees were treated worse than convicted criminals, today’s order has real meaning for the thousands of lives affected,” said Colette Reiner Mayer of Morrison & Foerster and counsel in the case. “This is a good first step towards remedying the harsh unconstitutional conditions in the Border Patrol detention facilities in the Tucson Sector.”

In December 2015, attorneys representing the plaintiff class of detained immigrants sought a preliminary injunction to stop the Border Patrol’s unconstitutional detention practices while the case is litigated. The injunction granted today is based on compelling evidence of inhumane and unconstitutional conditions in the Tucson facilities—much of which was disclosed after the Court found the Border Patrol had destroyed video recordings from these facilities and failed to turn over other relevant documentation.

"The court properly applied the constitutional ban on punishing civil detainees and condemned the inhumane conditions of detention in Border Patrol's Tucson Sector facilities," said ACLU of Arizona Senior Counsel Dan Pochoda. "This order will greatly improve the harmful and illegal conditions that thousands of Border Patrol detainees have had to endure and that the government has kept hidden from the public for years."

People who have been held in Tucson Sector facilities described to the court bone-chillingly cold holding cells, limited access to food and water, nonexistent access to personal hygiene products, and other appalling conditions. Former Washington state corrections secretary and an expert for the plaintiffs, Eldon Vail, said in a declaration to the court: “The conditions of confinement I witnessed through my inspections and through studying the records in this case are unthinkable in any other jurisdiction I have seen or heard about.  The CBP are housing people in conditions that are unnecessarily harsh, dangerous and contrary to accepted industry practices and standards.”

Former detainees told the court in declarations that the conditions in the holding facilities as far inferior to those they found in the local jails.  According to one declarant, “The Nogales sheriff jail was very different. They turned off all but one light…and there were only 15 men with me in a 20-person cell that had mattresses and beds...the sheriffs treated us better than Border Patrol.”

The order comes on the heels of a two-day evidentiary hearing earlier this week, where the court heard testimony from experts and others on detention conditions in the Tucson Sector. Written testimony from plaintiffs and declarants was also considered.

For more information about Doe et al v Johnson et al, click here.  


For more information, contact: 

Wendy Feliz, American Immigration Council, 202-812-2499, [email protected]

Juan Gastelum, National Immigration Law Center, 213-375-3149, [email protected]
Steve Kilar, ACLU of Arizona, 602-773-6007, 
[email protected]
Megan Sallomi, LCCR, 415-543-9697 x209, msallomi
Hayley Home, Morrison & Foerster LLP, 415-268-6021, 
[email protected]

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