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Border Patrol sued over conditions in short-term detention cells

A lawsuit says Border Patrol detainees in Tucson are denied basic sanitation and adequate medical care

Immigrants held in Border Patrol stations in southern Arizona are regularly denied basic sanitation, food, water, and adequate medical care, according to a class-action lawsuit that immigrant-rights organizations filed Monday with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona in Tucson.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two unnamed women recently detained in the Tucson Border Patrol Station  and a Tucson man who has been detained multiple times there.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to require the Border Patrol in the Tucson sector to enforce policies regarding the treatment of detainees, end overcrowding in holding cells and create better conditions for people in its care. The suit does not ask for monetary damages.

"The Border Patrol is not complying with its own policies,” Colette Reiner Mayer, a lawyer with Morrison & Foerster, who worked on the lawsuit  with the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations, told reporters Wednesday. The conditions are "excessively harsh," she said.

When people are arrested by the Border Patrol on suspicion of entering the country illegally, they are first taken to the nearby Border Patrol station,  where they are fingerprinted and their backgrounds are checked for criminal records and outstanding warrants.

The concrete holding cells in those stations are commonly called hieleras, Spanish for "freezer" or "icebox," because they are cold. They are designed for short-term stays. Immigrants seeking asylum or fighting their deportation in immigration court are supposed to be transferred quickly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for longer term detention or supervised release.

But in the Tucson sector, most immigrants stay in the holding cell for more than 24 hours before they are either released, returned to their home country or sent to long-term detention facilities.

More than 80% of people detained in the Tucson sector holding cells are held for more than 24 hours, according to Border Patrol data obtained by the American Immigration Council in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. That data was cited in the lawsuit filed Monday.

During the first six months of 2013, 58,083 of 72,198 individuals held in the Tucson sector were in Border Patrol detention for 24 hours or longer, according to the data.  More than 24,000 people were held in Border Patrol holding cells for 48 hours or more.

Norlan Flores, the man named in the complaint, was pulled over in August 2014 by Tucson Police for a traffic violation. During the traffic stop, Border Patrol agents arrived and took him to the Tucson Border Patrol station. Over the course of 36 hours, Flores was held in four different group cells, according to a description of his detention in the court filing. None of the holding cells had beds or bedding, the lights were kept on all night and air conditioning kept the temperature very low. There were no towels, soap or showers, and because the cell was crowded, he had to try to sleep standing up.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials had no immediate comment on the suit. They have responded to similar concerns previously by saying that officers take steps to provide for the comfort of people in their care and that the facilities are designed to comply with applicable laws and policies.

"Border Patrol seems to think these brutal conditions, and the human suffering that results, will deter immigration," James Duff Lyall, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said in a statement. "The fact is that many of these people are fleeing persecution and violence."

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

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