The moment Border Patrol agents swooped in on Claudia and her husband, Marvin, as they tried to sneak across the Rio Grande, the 31-year-old mother of two almost felt relief.
It had been an arduous 18-day journey from their native El Salvador, which they had fled for fear of their lives at the hands – and machetes – of a vicious gang, she said in a recent interview.
But she soon faced a new, unexpected ordeal as she quickly was separated from her husband and locked away with her preteen son and infant girl in cold cells with an ominous name.
“Then they took us,” Claudia said, “to the famous hieleras.”
Las hieleras, or “the freezers,” is how immigrants and some Border Patrol agents refer to the chilly holding cells at many stations along the U.S.-Mexico border. The facilities are used to house recently captured border crossers until they can be transferred to a long-term Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, returned to their native country or released until their immigration hearing.
According to interviews and court documents, many immigrants have been held for days in rooms kept at temperatures so low that men, women and children have developed illnesses associated with the cold, lack of sleep, overcrowding, and inadequate food, water and toilet facilities.
These complaints are backed up by anonymous surveys of recent migrants. A 2011 report from the advocacy group No More Deaths, for example, found that about 7,000 of nearly 13,000 immigrants interviewed reported inhumane conditions in Border Patrol cells – with about 3,000 of them saying they suffered extreme cold.
The treatment of migrants in these facilities has been muted in the roiling debate in Congress over expanding the Border Patrol and overhauling the nation’s immigration system. But for thousands of men and women, the facilities have provided a harsh official greeting after what they thought would be the hardest part of their journey, crossing the border.
Since their experience, Marvin and Claudia have filed administrative complaints against the Border Patrol, which can result in agents facing disciplinary action. The couple’s baby still has a persistent cough, Claudia said.
“It’s that they make you feel like you’re worthless,” she said. “They make you feel like you’ve committed a horrible crime.”
Apprehended immigrants are staying longer in short-term detention because ICE facilities are too crowded to accept new detainees, and there are not enough Border Patrol agents in some stations to process immigrants in a timely manner.
A few lawmakers have taken an interest in the problem. In June, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., added an amendment to the immigration overhaul package, calling for limits on the number of people held in a cell, adequate climate control, potable water, hygiene items and access to medical care, among other stipulations.
It ultimately was stripped from the Senate version, but Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., has included similar stipulations in a bill she proposed in September, called the Protect Family Values at the Border Act. It is currently in committee.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection first approved, then declined, to give The Center for Investigative Reporting a tour of one of the Border Patrol stations in question, citing unspecified pending litigation.
Luis Megid, a reporter with CIR partner Univision, was allowed in. He said the cells looked as immigrants have described, but cleaner – concrete cells, aluminum toilets, doors with glass windows. He was not allowed into a holding cell with detainees to judge the temperature. Border Patrol agent Daniel Tirado told Megid that agents are supposed to provide blankets upon request.
Christopher Cabrera, a local vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents the agency’s 21,000 agents, said that when a tour or special investigative inspection is scheduled, the station typically brings in a cleaning crew ahead of time.
It’s clear the stations are overcrowded. Border Patrol agent Juan Ayala said he recently made 732 bologna sandwiches for a single lunch at the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas. It took him almost five hours, he said. He loaded the sandwiches and juices into a shopping cart and delivered them to the 732 adult immigrant detainees in the station that day.
The station, Cabrera and Ayala said, was built to hold between 200 and 250 people at any one time.
Out of everything, former detained immigrants said it was the cold that was the worst. Several border crossers who have contacted attorneys and immigrant rights groups agreed to speak to CIR about conditions in the facilities, but on condition of anonymity to protect their pending asylum cases.[Full story]