I had heard stories about Border Patrol’s mistreatment of immigrants. When I volunteered in Artesia, New Mexico, and Dilley, Texas, the mothers and children there told me what a horrible experience they’d had in Border Patrol custody. Over the years, I’d become familiar with the term hieleras, or iceboxes, shorthand for the freezing cold and filthy Border Patrol facilities, in addition to the perreras, or dog pounds.
But now, thanks to a lawsuit filed on behalf of immigrants by the American Immigration Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others, the entire nation is seeing for themselves the horrors that have long-been described. Adults and children held in extremely close quarters with only a thin mylar blanket for cover. Diapers being changed on top of the same unsanitary blanket that covered a mother and her child for hours. No showers. No privacy. And empty rooms nearby that could have alleviated the crowded conditions.
When I spoke to the detained mothers, they told me about the horrendous conditions. Their children were the first to suffer; the first to get sick due to the extreme cold. Running noses, uncontrollable coughing, and frozen sandwiches were routine in the hieleras. One mother said she had to sleep on top of her daughter, cuddling her, to keep her warm. Another told me the floors were like a sheet of ice. I was taken aback at how easily the women described these conditions, and how as a matter of fact they called these centers hieleras, as though that was their official name. They seemed to think the horrible treatment and wretched conditions were simply part of the required process to seek protection from the United States government. It was surreal to say the least.
We’re not seeing these images because someone from Border Patrol decided to blow a whistle on the mistreatment. We’re not seeing these images because the government decided they should be more transparent. We’re seeing these images because of litigation. Video stills and expert testimony were gathered and presented in a lawsuit brought by Morrison & Foerster LLP, the National Immigration Law Center, the American Immigration Council, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the ACLU of Arizona.
In a press statement, Mary Kenney, senior staff attorney for the Council said it best: “Mothers should not be forced to change their babies’ diapers on cold concrete floors or warm them with flimsy aluminum sheets. Border Patrol’s treatment of men, women and children in its custody is simply inexcusable. We are seeking immediate relief from the deplorable detention conditions in CBP holding facilities for the thousands of individuals who are or will be held there while this case progresses.”
Though these hieleras have existed for years, it is only now that the truth is finally being revealed to the general public, thus exposing the way our country treats immigrants seeking protection. This isn’t just an issue affecting facilities in Arizona; similar treatment is dealt out at facilities all along our southern border. This is wrong and inhumane. Please share these photos and your outrage with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and the public. The callous treatment of the most vulnerable by our nation’s Border Patrol must stop. This cannot be our country’s legacy.
Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, AILA Immediate Past President