A District Court in Tucson this week unsealed hundreds of documents and photos that reveal the government has long been aware of the inhumane conditions in the Border Patrol’s infamous "hieleras," temporary holding cells that are known for their extremely cold temperatures.
The photos show the filthy conditions and broken water fountains in facilities used to detain undocumented immigrants immediately after their arrest.
Border Patrol’s holding cells, known by immigrants as las hieleras,” or “the freezers,” have been subject to countless news reports quoting people who describe frigid temperatures and squalid conditions in detention.
U.S. District Court Judge in Arizona ordered the release of the images to the public as part of a class-action suit that was filed on behalf of three people who were detained by the Border Patrol in Tucson.
According to the lawsuit, the immigrants were “stripped of outer layers of clothing and forced to suffer in brutally cold temperatures.”
The lawsuit highlights testimony recorded by the Women’s Refugee Commission:
Carmen was apprehended by Border Patrol crossing the river with her five-month-old daughter Lily. She was placed into a cell with no dry clothes or blankets for her or the baby. Carmen requested something to keep the baby warm since it was so cold in the cell and all she had was wet clothing. The agents refused. By morning Lily was turning blue.
The plaintiffs allege that “all of the cells” were filthy and smelled terrible:
There was garbage on the floor of all of the cells and no trash bins. The only time the cell was cleaned during his detention was by several inmates who had been offered an extra burrito in exchange for cleaning the cell. Even after that cleaning, the cell was filthy and littered with trash. In one cell, there was no toilet paper. In the last cell, in which 130 people were held, one of the three toilets did not work, and men had to wait in line to use the remaining two. The foul smell was overpowering.
The lawsuit was filed by a group of civil and immigration rights groups, including the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C., the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
The photos released so far show only empty holding cells, but those following the case claim there are worse photos that have yet to be released.
“The next round of images, which we hope will be released, will be of much greater interest to the media and the public,” said Mary Kenney, senior staff attorney for the American Immigration Council.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson declined to comment, saying it is agency policy not to comment on pending litigation.
During a six month period in 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained over 58,000 people for 24 hours or longer in holding cells within the Tucson Sector, according to data obtained by the ACLU. More than 24,000 of those detainees were held for 48 hours or longer.
The Border Patrol urged the judge to not release the photos and documents because they contained “personally identifiable information that is protected” or sensitive “records regarding law enforcement activities and operations,” according to the court documents released Monday.
The judge ultimately decided to release a portion of the records and has given the plaintiffs 14-days to "show compelling security reasons” to keep the remaining documents sealed.
“Border Patrol’s treatment of men, women and children in its custody is simply inexcusable, and the lack of transparency shows their desire to avoid any public oversight or accountability,” said Kenney, the American Immigration Council attorney.
The lawsuit is not asking for monetary damages, but lawyers hope that publishing the pictures will help draw attention to the situation and lead to change.
“We are just looking for a change and improvement in the conditions so that they meet with basic constitutional standards,” Kenney told Fusion.