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Report: Immigrants Detained in Substandard Holding Cells

Immigrant women and children detained along the U.S.-Mexico border are regularly housed in cells with conditions that do not meet the policy standards of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found.

HRW’s interviews with 110 women and children who had been detained revealed that CBP holding cells often are “uncomfortably cold” and detainees receive minimal provisions.

“Women and children detained along the border usually spend one to three nights, and sometimes longer, in CBP holding cells, where they sleep on the floor, often with only a Mylar blanket, similar to the foil wrappers used by marathon runners, to protect them from the cold,” HRW found. “Border agents sometimes require them to remove and discard sweaters or other layers of clothing, purportedly for security reasons, before they enter the holding cells.”

CBP’s policy guidelines state that “when it is within CBP control, officers/agents should maintain hold room temperature within a reasonable and comfortable range for both detainees and officers/agents. Under no circumstances will officers/agents use temperature controls in a punitive manner.”

Yet, a common term used to describe the holding cells is “hieleras” (freezers).

CBP has denied claims of cold temperatures.

The CBP guidelines also require the provision of “basic personal hygiene items, consistent with short-term detention and safety and security needs” to detainees. A shower is only required for those “who are approaching 72 hours in detention.”

Few interviewees were provided a mat to sleep on, access to a shower or basic toiletries (such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrush) during their detentions.

“Every effort must be made to ensure that hold rooms house no more detainees than prescribed by the operational office’s policies and procedures. Capacity may only be exceeded with supervisory approval,” CBP guidelines state. “However, under no circumstances should the maximum occupancy rate, as set by the fire marshal, be exceeded.”

Yet, many HRW interviewees reported being placed in 10-foot-square cell housing with at least 10 other people.

“Evaluating the ‘apparent disconnect’ between CBP standards and official position and the experiences of detained women and children, a federal court concluded in 2017 that CBP’s ‘reliance on their policies, practices and third-party contracts on this issue of unsanitary conditions again fails to controvert . . . first-hand accounts’ by women and children detained in CBP holding cells,” HRW noted.

The full report is available here.