Senator’s new bill would set detention standards at US border facilities

Some men held at a short-term detention center in Nogales, Ariz., use heat-reflective “space” blankets. Interviews and court records show many immigrants have been held for days in rooms kept at temperatures so low that they develop pneumonia and other illnesses.

Credit: Peter O’Dowd/Fronteras

Citing a report by The Center for Investigative Reporting, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced today a new bill to implement standards at Customs and Border Protection facilities, including Border Patrol stations, to ensure humane detention conditions.

The measure by Boxer, a California Democrat, stipulates standards such as adequate climate control, potable water, access to toilets, access to medical care and special treatment for pregnant women, among other things. It also would allow the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection’s parent agency, to establish more standards.

The bill is not substantially different from Customs and Border Protection’s own internal policy for its holding cells, save one major difference – accountability and oversight. Under the proposed law, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General would perform annual inspections of these facilities to determine whether they are kept up according to policy.

Currently, these facilities are not subject to external inspections to check for compliance with its internal policy. Inspections typically happen only in response to complaints that the inspector general or the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties decide merit further action.

In November, CIR reported that immigrants apprehended near the border sometimes are held in what they, as well as some Border Patrol agents, call las hieleras, or “the freezers.” Immigrants have reported cold temperatures, overcrowding, insufficient food and water, a lack of medical care and an absence of basic hygiene supplies, including soap, showers, toothbrushes and sanitary napkins for women. Lawyers told CIR that these conditions could amount to human rights and constitutional violations.

One woman told CIR that it was so cold, she could see her breath. Another said her infant daughter contracted pneumonia while in detention due to the cold and lack of medical care. And a Border Patrol agent said he once made bologna sandwiches for 732 adult detainees’ lunches in a facility equipped to handle about 250 detainees.

“No human being held by United States authorities should ever be exposed to hunger, extreme temperatures, physical or verbal abuse, or denial of medical care,” Boxer said in a press release announcing the new bill.

Boxer first proposed similar terms in June as an amendment to the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. It ultimately was stripped from the final version due to “politically driven negotiations among senators in the final hours,” said Ruthie Epstein of the American Civil Liberties Union, who helped craft the original proposal.

“It was intended to respond to a really basic, fundamental lack of appropriate conditions in CBP (Customs and Border Protection) hold rooms, which are currently not governed by any binding standards,” Epstein said.

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