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Arizona court releases photos from inside 'freezers' at immigrant processing centers

The images provide a rare look inside Border Patrol centers with "inhumane and unconstitutional" conditions, according to immigrant rights groups.
18 Ago 2016 – 03:03 PM EDT
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New images from Border Patrol processing centers were released Thursday by an Arizona district court which unsealed hundreds of documents and photos from a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security.

Taken from security camera footage, the scenes show dozens of immigrants sleeping under aluminum-like Mylar sheets on the floor and on concrete benches in overcrowded facilities designed for only 12-hour stays. Other images show a woman changing her child's diapers on the floor and human excrement smeared on the walls.

"These conditions are inhumane and unconstitutional," said Nora Preciado, a lawyer from the National Immigration Law Center, one of the groups along with the American Immigration Council and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona that filed the June 2015 lawsuit.

Preciado noted that this is one of few times that the Border Patrol has shared images from detention center holding cells known as "freezers," or hieleras in Spanish, due to their frigid temperatures. The photos were taken at eight Arizona facilities, including those in Nogales, Douglas, Naco, Casa Grande and Tucson.

These processing centers are meant to temporarily detain immigrants while authorities take their fingerprints, check for criminal records and decide the next step in each individual's case. But detainees often spend the night - or longer.

"Border Patrol says that it takes 12 hours to process immigrants, but we're well aware that people spend between 24 and 72 hours at these centers," Preciado said.

An American Immigration Council study, published today in conjunction with the court document release, shows that in nine 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 study analyzed data on almost 327,000 immigrants from Sept. 1, 2014 to Aug. 31, 2015.

"These facilities are not designed for overnight custody, but they're being routinely used that way," said Guillermo Cantor, the study's author.

The suit alleges Border Patrol fails to provide beds, warmth, medical care, sufficient food and potable water, or a sanitary environment for detainees. Immigrants are forced to sleep among trash without access to soap or showers, and some say guards threaten to lower the temperature or withhold food, according to court documents.

"The conditions here serve no legitimate penological or custodial interest and unjustifiable risk of harm to detainees," says Eldon Vail, a former corrections administrator who visited the detention centers, in court documents. "All of these factors lead me to conclude that detainees suffer unnecessarily and that these conditions are likely to create tension among the detainees as they are forced to compete for access to these most basic functions of everyday life."

The lawsuit is based on testimony from three immigrants detained in the Tucson section, along with interviews from 75 former detainees. The goal is to improve conditions in these centers, especially for those who spend a long period of time getting processed.

Things like adequate food, water and medical attention are essential, as well as beds and blankets for those who have to stay overnight, Preciado explained. Basic necessities such as soap, toilet paper, paper towels, sanitary napkins and diapers must also be provided.

"It's rare that the public gets to see inside these processing centers," Preciado said. "I think seeing them for yourself has a different effect. We hope the public will join our call for reform."