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Activists say civil rights of migrant families violated in CBP custody

A Tucson-based group of volunteers have accused Customs and Border Protection of violating the civil rights of immigrant families in temporary holding facilities in Arizona, based on dozens of interviews made this summer.

The group Guatemala Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project, a public health organization that sends Spanish-speaking health care volunteers to selected villages in Guatemala, presented their report at El Tiradito Shrine in Tucson on Wednesday.

The 91-page report titled "Deprivation not Deterrence" relied on 33 interviews with Central American and Mexican immigrant families detained by the agency and held in seven facilities throughout Southern Arizona during the height of the immigration surge from late May through late July 2014.

In the fiscal year of 2014, Customs and Border Protection apprehended 68,445 people in family units, a nearly four-fold increase from the year before, most of them in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Tucson Sector apprehended 3,812, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2013.

Most of the families were apprehended in Douglas, though a few came from the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas.

The interviews followed a standard questionnaire to ask about the treatment of immigrants during their holding at Border Patrol stations and ports of entry, and found that immigrants reported significant deprivations, including a lack of food and water, lack of sleep, and physical, psychological, and verbal abuse. 

Blake Gentry, a board member who helped prepare the report called the problems in holding cells "egregious."

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"There are deprivations of food and water; there are unsanitary conditions and overcrowding in cells which made children, infants and women sick," said Gentry. Agents also withheld food and water during interrogations, he said.

The report found that immigrants reported being hungry and dehydrated during their detention, arguing that adults suffered a nutritional deficit during their holding.

The report also said that offered frozen burritos that were often "inedible, rancid and foul-smelling" and that agents may have withheld food as a "deliberate form of punishment."

Some migrants reported getting sick after eating the food, including a two-year old who vomited after eating the cracker and burrito offered by agents.

Water was also a problem, immigrants coming from Douglas said the water was undrinkable due to the smell of heavily chlorinated water. One boy became so dehydrated that he suffered nosebleeds and a pregnant woman's blood pressure dropped due to significant dehydration, the report said.

'sytematic' sleep deprivation claimed

Gentry said he was especially bothered by he called a "systematic" effort to interrupt the sleeping patterns of people in holding cells. 

"The worst for me personally is the system of sleep deprivation. It is not an accident, this is designed," Gentry said.

Lights are left on 24 hours a day, the cells are kept cold and immigrants are only given mylar blankets for warmth. Furthermore, the holding areas are noisy, and agents at the Tucson Border Patrol station frequently woke people up between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. to sign release papers, but weren't released for hours. 

Customs and Border Protection would not comment on the report directly, however, an spokesman wrote that the CBP "is committed to ensuring that the agency is able to execute its challenging missions while preserving the human rights and dignity of those with whom we come in contact."

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"The men and women of CBP strive to treat each of the more than 1 million people we come into contact with each day with the respect they deserve," said Victor Brabble, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Tucson Sector.

"All allegations of misconduct are taken seriously, and if warranted, referred for appropriate investigative and/or disciplinary action to be taken," Brabble said.

BP union: 'Agents do the right thing'

Art Del Cueto, president of the Tucson Sector's Border Patrol union, Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council, defended the agency and said agents have often given food to immigrants they've apprehended. In his experience, he said, even immigrants who are treated well by agents will report mistreatment. 

"Agents do the right thing in my experience and people are given food whenever they ask for it," he said.

Most of the interviews were with women and their female children. Guatemalans represented 65 percent of all adults, and Hondurans were 24 percent, with the remainder being split between Salvadoran and Mexican adults.

The report also noted that nearly a third of the adult migrants didn't speak Spanish, but spoke the indigenous languages from provinces of Guatemala. 

According to the report, over 40 percent of the immigrants interviewed were held from three to nine days, breaking the Department of Homeland Security's own policy of limiting detention to 72 hours.

A pregnant women, one of the first interviewed by the group, was held nine days after she was apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley and then transferred to the Tucson Sector Border Patrol station.

"It's no coincidence that we see these conditions over and over," said Gentry. "The system is designed to degrade the human health of immigrants who come into the custody of the United States government, so any one result is something that gets reproduced over and over again."

The mistreatment of immigrants under the Department of Homeland Security has been covered by several reports by activist groups, including one in 2012 by Amnesty International titled "In Hostile Terrain" and another by No More Deaths called "Culture of Cruelty" which collected information from 2008 to 2011.

The latest claim of mistreatment was from June, when five immigrant rights groups filed a formal complaint against CBP built on similar accusations.

Citing the use of stress positions, the denial of food and water, as well as physical, mental and sexual abuse, and a lack of medical care, the complaint focused on 113 cases of unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the United States in the last year.

Of the unaccompanied minors the groups interviewed, more than 80 percent reported being denied food or water. One child reported that the only available water was from the toilet tank in her cell. Other children reported being fed frozen or spoiled food and being ignored when they became ill.

Children also reported being held in cells when the lights were always on, sleeping on plastic sheets, and reported they were often freezing or subjected to extreme heat in their cells. The issue of cold cells has become so notorious that officers and prisoners call them "hielera" — "coolers" in Spanish. 

Margie King, a volunteer for Casa Mariposa, has offered shelter for dozens of immigrants passing through Tucson after their release from custody. "This isn't because of the surge, we've been hearing about these problems for years."

Gentry said the Department of Homeland Security's focus on anti-terror measures clashes with humane immigration enforcement.

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"We have a mission of an institution of the United States that was set up to combat something that those of us who live on the border and experience every day have not seen," Gentry said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A immigrant family waits for tickets at the Greyhound station in Tucson during the summer, one of dozens of families released by Border Patrol after their apprehension in the Tucson Sector.