The March 22 Miami Herald article Questions about death of Mexican teen linger was yet another reminder of the growing number of immigrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border.
A recent independent review found that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents have stepped in the path of cars in order to justify shooting at passengers and have opened fire at people throwing rocks from the Mexican side of the border. The report also criticized CBP’s “lack of diligence” in investigating the shootings.
In early 2013, Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice) attorneys began hearing jarring narratives from detainees who had been transferred to Florida from the border. They described being locked up in overcrowded cells with no beds, no showers, no blankets and little food or water. The cells are so cold that people’s fingers and toes turn blue and their lips crack and bleed.
CBP officers call these hieleras (iceboxes). Detainees aren’t given even the most basic supplies, like toothbrushes, soap, combs or ample sanitary napkins; a single toilet is in plain view, and bright overhead lights are on around the clock.
Maria, a diabetic, fled after being repeatedly raped by her abuser and was held in the hieleras for 13 days. “When I saw Border Patrol I thought they’d help me, but they threw away my insulin and syringes and my anti-seizure medications,” she said. On the second day of detention Maria passed out, was handcuffed and taken to the hospital. “The doctor there said I needed my medications but I was taken back to the hielera the same day and I never got them,” Maria said.
Sofia, who fled years of life-threatening sexual abuse by a police officer in Mexico, said that after knocking her to the ground, a Border Patrol officer “ordered me and the others to get in the dog kennel.”
Ana spent six days in the hieleras. “When CBP officers threatened me with indefinite detention I told them that I feared I’d be killed if they sent me back. The officer called me a bad name and said my fear didn’t matter because everyone there was going home,” Ana said.
Countless children are also detained in these holding stations. Michelle, a teenage orphan, fled her country with her baby to escape the brutal rapes and beatings. “I was not allowed to change my 1-year-old daughter’s clothes at any point during our nine-day stay in the hieleras,” she said. “I was yelled at by a male officer who said we were just coming to this country to steal their money. My daughter cried during our entire stay because of the extreme discomfort caused by her soiled diaper and her lack of warm clothing.”
Although persons in CBP custody should be promptly processed before transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), many are detained for weeks. Virtually all report officers threaten that they will be punished if they don’t sign papers in English that they don’t understand. By signing the papers, they’ve agreed to their deportation. Many detainees are bona fide asylum seekers or otherwise entitled to protection under our laws.
AI Justice filed formal complaints with CBP and the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of several women and children, but has received no response. In mid-March we filed a federal court lawsuit to compel CBP to respond to our Freedom of Information Act request seeking information regarding conditions in CBP iceboxes.
Clearly, security at our borders can be achieved without subjecting women and children to unconscionable, inhumane treatment. Americans condemn such actions in other countries; we need to live up to our own ideals.
In December 2013, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced the Humane Short Term Custody Act, which we helped draft and which would require that all individuals in CPB custody receive humane and fair treatment. This bill is desperately needed in order to better ensure that all persons in our government’s custody are accorded basic human rights and dignity.
Cheryl Little is executive director of Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice.