Trial opens in suit over Border Patrol detention conditions

Trial opens in suit over Border Patrol detention conditions

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — It's 2 a.m. on a Tuesday in September and a man is trudging around crammed bodies that wriggle as he tries to reach a bathroom stall at a Border Patrol facility in Tucson.

The first stall is a no-go— someone is sleeping, covered by a thin aluminum-style blanket that slips out from under the stall. The next two stalls are also occupied by sleeping migrants. Back to the first one he goes.

The man was shown in previously unreleased surveillance video that was displayed Monday during the federal trial for a lawsuit challenging detention conditions in eight Border Patrol stations in Arizona.

Advocates who filed the suit in 2015 say the Border Patrol routinely holds migrants in squalid, freezing and overcrowded facilities.

The video showing the man looking to use the restroom illustrated just how cramped the facilities get, even as a major surge in illegal border crossings began to wane. Nearly 852,000 people — largely families with children — were apprehended last fiscal year. By the end of summer, figures started to drop significantly as the Trump administration implemented several polices that largely bar most asylum-seekers from entering the U.S.

“It's not sustainable, I don't think, to keep people in these conditions year after year after year," said witness Eldon Vail, who was hired by plaintiffs to physically inspect and review surveillance videos from Border Patrol stations in the agency's Tucson Sector.

Vail, a longtime corrections administrator in the state of Washington, said he had never seen conditions like those at the Border Patrol.

“It's just basically human to give people a little bit of room," Vail said.

A preliminary injunction granted by U.S. District Court Judge David C. Bury in 2016 already requires the Tucson Sector to provide clean mats and thin blankets to migrants held for longer than 12 hours and to allow them to clean themselves. The agency also must turn over surveillance video and statistics like time in custody.

Although the lawsuit predates last year’s surge in immigrant arrivals, it illustrates some of the challenges posed when migrants are detained, especially if they are children.

In a video described by Vail but not shown to everyone in the courtroom, a young girl had to maneuver around several other children 12 to 16 just to reach a bathroom, he said.

The trial also included testimony from a data analyst who explained charts showing how the agency has increasingly detained people for longer periods of time.

Immigrants held in the Tucson Sector spent an average of nearly 54 hours in custody during the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30.

“What happens with these detainees, how these human beings are affected by those conditions and why, that's what this case is about," Bury said as the trial opened.

Migrants and advocates have long complained about the infamously named “hieleras,” or iceboxes, where those apprehended by the Border Patrol are held before being turned over to another agency or deported.

In 2017, Bury said the agency violated court orders by failing to preserve surveillance footage that it was required to turn over. Bury partially granted a motion to hold the Tucson Sector in civil contempt over video files that were irreparably damaged, agreeing the agency knew about the bad files but didn’t notify plaintiffs.

The Border Patrol didn't respond to a request for comment. It has defended its practices in the past, saying its facilities are designed for short-term stays and that a variety of factors affect how long someone is there.

“The number of individuals in a given hold room is never intended to create discomfort or challenges for those in custody, but rather is determined by operational concerns,” government attorneys wrote in a filing last week “Food, water, sanitation, hygiene items, bedding, medical care, etc., are not withheld as a punitive measure, and station temperatures are not set for punitive purposes.”

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