Administrative Complaint Series Reflects Horrors of CBP Detention

This photograph depicting a Tucson Sector Border Patrol station was obtained in 2016 via litigation challenging conditions of confinement in CBP detention. Source: American Immigration Council

By Sarah Thompson

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (including its subcomponent, Border Patrol) runs a network of detention facilities at the border and in the interior, designed as short-term holding facilities to process people before release or transfer. Many of these facilities—including almost all Border Patrol stations—lack beds, showers or full-time medical staff. Cognizant of these structural deficiencies, CBP policy states that detainees “should generally not be held for longer than 72 hours in CBP hold rooms or holding facilities.”

Yet—as advocates, community members and the federal government’s own reports have documented—CBP consistently detains people for far longer than this 72-hour limit, in abhorrent conditions that are both dangerous and dehumanizing. In 2019, at least seven children died in CBP custody without explanation or adequate investigation by the agency.

It is the ACLU’s position that CBP facilities are categorically unsuitable and inappropriate for any period of detention beyond the time required for initial processing, which should in no case exceed 12 hours. Most of the people in CBP detention are seeking asylum and have already endured significant trauma fleeing their countries of origin to escape persecution. When taken into CBP custody, these vulnerable individuals experience further abuse and neglect, which exacerbates their pre-existing trauma.

Between March and July 2019, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties interviewed 105 individuals detained by CBP in Southern California and Texas. Based on these interviews, we prepared four separate administrative complaints regarding CBP detention conditions. The complaints were submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), the agency charged with enforcing accountability for abuses that occur within DHS, including CBP. Our complaints focus on each of the following four specific issues exacerbated by overlong detention: (1) treatment of pregnant people (2) treatment of sick children (3) family separations and (4) verbal abuse.

The accounts we collected demonstrate a pattern of cruelty and negligence by CBP employees. The people we interviewed vividly recounted instances of abuse ranging from excessive force against a late-term pregnant woman; to a newborn baby denied medical care until repeated hospitalizations were necessary; to family members disappearing into the black box of CBP’s bureaucracy without notice; to agents cursing at young children and using racial slurs towards people in their custody.

In consultation with advocates and subject matter experts across the country, our complaints lay out a series of specific recommendations to improve CBP’s policies and practices. For example:

  • To improve the treatment of pregnant individuals in CBP custody, CBP should prioritize release of pregnant people and develop, adopt and publish explicit policies that will ensure adequate, timely medical care for pregnant people during the time they are in CBP custody;
  • To safeguard the wellbeing of sick children in CBP custody, CBP should strictly prohibit the continued detention of sick children, increase on-site staffing of qualified medical professionals, and increase transparency regarding what treatment sick children receive while detained;
  • To avoid causing bureaucratic family separations, CBP should immediately implement a telephonic and online detainee locator system for all individuals in CBP custody and prioritize release of family units from detention (while adopting a more inclusive definition of “family”); and
  • To eliminate verbal abuse and address the agency’s culture of cruelty, CBP should strictly prohibit personnel from verbally abusing individuals in CBP custody and enforce that prohibition through a zero-tolerance anti-discrimination policy and a new, overhauled system for complaints and discipline of offending personnel.

There has been some recent progress in the fight for accountability for CBP detention abuses. In February, a groundbreaking victory in a federal lawsuit, Doe v. Wolf, No. 15-00250 (D. Ariz., filed June 8, 2015), declared Border Patrol detention conditions in the Tucson Sector to be unconstitutional. Additionally, certain Members of Congress have spoken out about CBP detention.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the desperate harms inflicted on detained populations throughout the United States—whether in prisons, jails, detention facilities, or agency facilities. In this era of constant crisis, we must not lose sight of the perils of human detention, and continue to push our elected representatives to hold CBP accountable for the abuses it commits. If we do not, we are sentencing more people to die at our country’s doorstep.

Sarah Thompson is the 2018-2020 Border Litigation Fellow/Staff Attorney for the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties.