Attorneys representing seven migrants from Central America allege U.S. Customs and Border Protection is holding them in overcrowded facilities while denying them access to legal counsel.
The plaintiffs include Jairo Alexander Gonzalez Recinos, of El Salvador; Gerardo Henrique Herrera Rivera, of El Salvador; Kevin Eduardo Rizzo Ruano, of Guatemala; Jonathan Fernando Beltran Rizzo, of Guatemala; Enerly Melitza Ramos, of Guatemala; Karen Vanessa Borjas Zuniga, of Honduras; and Julia Elizabeth Molina Lopez, of Honduras.
The lawsuit targets several Department of Homeland Security officials and seeks the immediate release of the migrants on bond, as well as any others who are similarly situated.
“Petitioners were apprehended in mid-May at or near the U.S. Border with Mexico and subsequently detained. Once apprehended, such persons are often detained for extended periods of time — on information and belief, up to six weeks — in overcrowded holding cells, with inadequate food, water, and sanitation facilities, where attorneys are not allowed to visit. The conditions in these holding cells are dangerous and inhumane,” the lawsuit stated.
The litigation follows a report from a DHS internal watchdog that revealed “dangerous overcrowding” at an El Paso Border Patrol processing facility — a facility designed to hold 125 detainees that held approximately 900 people during a two-day span in early May.
Photos published in that report show detainees packed into cells and standing on toilets to get breathing space, with many being held longer than 72 hours — the maximum amount of time CBP’s internal policy allows it to detain migrants before releasing them or transferring them to an ICE detention center.
Border Patrol has been overwhelmed with immigrants crossing the Rio Grande in large numbers and turning themselves in, stressing the agencies resources. In May, Border Patrol reported detaining approximately 133,000 migrants, the largest number for any month since 2007.
The attorneys claim that the detainees named in the suits have been confined at a Border Patrol facility in Brownsville for more than five days, where they have been subjected to inhumane treatment and harsh conditions.
“They have been packed into overcrowded facilities and detained for weeks without adequate food and water, sanitation facilities, or access to counsel,” one lawsuit stated. “Attorneys are not allowed to visit individuals detained at these facilities, so counsel have been unable to communicate directly with them, or obtain their signatures on G-28s, the forms required for counsel to be recognized as their attorneys by DHS.”
The detainees are bringing the action through their “next friends,” named as family members, to challenge what the attorneys call unbearable conditions.
The lawsuit alleges that some people have been held for as many as 40 days.
The attorneys say their clients’ imprisonment is unlawful because of a confluence of three illegal government practices.
“First, they are being held virtually incommunicado. They have almost no contact with the outside world, and most particularly, they are being held in a facility that does not allow access by attorneys,” the lawsuit stated. “Second, although respondents ostensibly are acting under color of immigration law, on information and belief, respondents have incarcerated three of the four named petitioners for more than three weeks, without issuing charging documents.”
Lastly, Border Patrol is detaining them in temporary holding facilities that are not appropriate for overnight stays.
Neither lawsuit stated which Brownsville Border Patrol holding facility or facilities are being described in the complaint.
“On information and belief, they allege that in some cases, detainees have received only one sandwich a day, and none has been (able) to shower during the entire time of their detention,” the lawsuit stated.
Since May, CBP has been busing detainees released on bond to shelters across the Rio Grande Valley, including in Brownsville. Immigrants released at the bus station and taken to the Good Neighbor Settlement House in downtown Brownsville haven’t showered since being detained and local volunteers have consistently asked the community to donate clothing for the migrants.
The lawsuit describes Border Patrol stations as having notoriously abysmal conditions, as documented in federal litigation and third-party reports.
“These facilities, termed ‘hieleras’ (Spanish for freezers), are typically small, concrete rooms with concrete or metal benches,” the litigation stated. “In Customs and Border Protection’s own words, these facilities are ‘not designed for sleeping’: they have no beds and showers are not guaranteed.”
The attorneys also believe that some detainees are signing documents that will lead to their removal.
“Some detainees at these facilities have been so deprived of basic necessities that they have signed documents, the contents of which they are unaware, (but which most likely waive their rights under the Immigration and Nationality Act), involuntarily, and without adequate screening regarding their fears of returning to their native countries and means of learning about potential lawful means of avoiding prompt removal,” the lawsuit stated.
The litigation seeks to include everyone similarly situated as the plaintiffs.
“Class members are unable to receive visits from legal counsel, are detained without adequate food, water, sleeping and sanitation facilities, and are often forced or coerced into signing documents, the contents of which they may be unaware, but which may relate to their voluntary departure or removal from the United States,” according to the lawsuit.
The attorneys are asking a federal judge to issue an injunction preventing Border Patrol from holding anyone longer than 72 hours and to release anyone, with or without an electronic monitoring device, who has been detained for longer than 72 hours.