Report: Detained Migrants Held in Border ‘Iceboxes’

Researchers found that detained migrants in the Rio Grande Valley are held in overcrowded, freezing rooms — without beds — for days at a time.

A Border Patrol agent arrives to take custody of a group of immigrants from Texas Border Volunteers.
Charles Gilbert
A Border Patrol agent arrives to take custody of a group of immigrants from the Texas Border Volunteers, a vigilante-like group that patrols the border area.

A report released today by the American Immigration Council reveals that migrant men, women and children apprehended along the Texas-Mexico border and detained in short-term detention facilities are routinely held in overcrowded, extremely cold cells for long periods of time with little food, water or space to sleep, highlighting the inhumane practices long associated with border apprehensions and detention.

The report is based on never-before-released data and records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the federal U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, known for secrecy and pervasive corruption.

Analyzing 2013 CBP data, Washington D.C.’s American Immigration Council found that migrants are frequently held in freezing rooms, known in Spanish as hieleras, or iceboxes, for days at a time and forced to sleep on cold, concrete floors in the overcrowded cells. Researchers examined the length and conditions of short-term detention in the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector, which spans 34,000 square miles in South Texas and sees the highest number of apprehensions as well as the largest share of women and children detainees compared to the eight other southwest border sectors in Texas, Arizona and California monitored by CBP.

“The RGV facilities that we analyzed tend to be overcrowded because of the number of people that are apprehended in this sector of the border, and the facilities are not equipped to have these numbers of people,” said Guillermo Cantor, research director at the council and author of the report. “The longer they stay, the worse the conditions are.”

Between August and December 2013, an average of 1,173 people were held at Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley sector at any given time, according to the report. The average number of hours people spent in holding cells was 41 hours, well above the then-established CBP rule that migrants should not be held for longer than 12 hours before being transferred. The council also found that 212 people were held for longer than 72 hours.

“That is unacceptable given that these facilities are not equipped for beds or designed for sleeping,” Cantor said.

This year, CBP changed its definition of short-term detention, determining that migrants should not be held longer than 72, rather than 12, hours. Cantor told the Observer that that “institutionalizes a problem.”

Reports of freezing temperatures, poor food and overcrowding have long been associated with detention facilities and holding cells used by Border Patrol. For its report, the American Immigration Council analyzed interviews by the Binational Defense and Advocacy Program, or Programa de Defensa e Incidencia Binacional (PDIB), which conducts surveys with migrants deported back to Mexico. The council analyzed PDIB interviews conducted between June and November 2015 and found that 76 percent of individuals apprehended in the RGV sector were exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Of those, approximately 96 percent reported that they were given thin aluminum sheets to keep warm.

“I believe I got pneumonia at the holding cell because it was so cold,” said one migrant woman whose story was published in the report. “Everyone’s aluminum blanket was rattling in the air and it felt like my hair was frozen. I wrapped my sweater around my son’s head to keep him warm and I only had a T-shirt on.”

Every person interviewed by PDIB said the holding cells did not have enough space for everyone to lie down. Women reported sleeping on the floor or next to a toilet, even being forced to sleep standing up. According to the survey, 99 percent of individuals apprehended in the RGV sector reported they were given inadequate food, compared to 67 percent of individuals apprehended in other border sectors.

“While we were in the hielera there was virtually nothing to eat,” reported another migrant woman featured in the study. “I was given a piece of bread but my son was not given anything.”

The RGV sector, which stretches across 34 counties in South Texas, sees the most apprehensions of migrants of all nine sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border. According the report, of the 479,000 or so individuals detained by Border Patrol agents in fiscal year 2014, approximately 256,000, or 53.5 percent, were apprehended and held in the Valley. The majority of women and juveniles detained along the U.S.-Mexico border were apprehended in the RGV sector — 70.1 percent and 74.1 percent, respectively.

In addition to its analysis of government data and surveys, the American Immigration Council reviewed more than 30 stories of women who were detained in the RGV border sector and then transferred to the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley, one of two family detention centers currently operating in Texas. Patterns of inadequate food and medical care, separation of mothers from children and mistreatment by CBP officials experienced by women in short-term detention facilities mirror those reported for years by human rights advocates, immigration attorneys and civil rights groups.

“[My son] suffers from asthma and takes medicine to treat his condition. I made sure to carry [his] medicine with us along our journey, but when we arrived at the hielera, the CBP officers threw [his] medicine away, and said it was prohibited,” said Rosa, who was detained by Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley with her 11-year-old son. “I asked CBP multiple times if my son could have medicine and medical care. I was so worried about him. CBP ignored my requests. They told me and women with sick kids, ‘This isn’t a hospital.’”

If migrants are not deported back to Mexico or their home countries, they often end up in long-term detention centers in the United States while their asylum cases work their way through the courts. Thousands of women and children are currently held in two privately-owned family detention centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Texas: The Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, that together house more than 2,400 individuals.

The Obama administration ended the practice of detaining women and their children in 2009 following scandal and human rights abuses at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center near Austin, but restarted the practice last year after thousands of unaccompanied minors and migrant families arrived at the Texas-Mexico border. For more than a year, immigration and human rights advocates have demanded the federal government close family detention centers.

The American Immigration Council and other organizations filed a class action lawsuit against CBP in June, in response to similar patterns of lengthy detention, freezing cold temperatures and other inhumane practices the council documented in the Tucson Border Patrol sector in Arizona, in June.

Cantor said the report illuminates and reaffirms years of anecdotes and media reports of short-term detention. Though the government data analyzed in the report is from 2013, he said, the interviews and surveys of recently detained women highlight that the lengthy stays in hieleras are still happening now.

“Having better standards and better conditions of detention is the ultimate goal,” he said. “You cannot hold people for that long and subject them to conditions that are so inhumane.”

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

Published at 1:38 pm CST