‘They were laughing at us’ immigrants tell of cruelty, illness and filth in us detention us news the guardian

The “hieleras”, or iceboxes, asylum-seekers said, were overcrowded, unhygienic, and prone to outbreaks of vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory infections and other communicable diseases. Many complained about the cruelty of guards, who they said would yell at children, taunt detainees with promises of food that never materialized and kick people who did not wake up when they were expected to.

If they talked too loudly, or if children were crying, the guards would threaten to turn the air temperature down further. When the Martinezes gathered with fellow detainees to sing hymns and lift their spirits a little, the guards would taunt them, or ask aggressively: “Why did you bother coming here? Why didn’t you stay in your country?”

When three-year-old Jenny Martinez came down with a bad case of the flu, she and her mother were taken to a hospital where, they said, they were left waiting for hours with nowhere to sit or lie down, and no blankets, before receiving medication.


Back in the detention facility, they were put in isolation and even Rafael was denied access to them.

Kimberly noticed that her daughter, like many of the detainees, was growing more jaundiced by the day for lack of vitamins or fresh air or sunshine. The toilets were filthy – with no seat covers and no toilet paper – and Kimberly observed that staff members did not throw out the crinkly blankets when detainees were moved or released; they simply passed them along to new arrivals.

Not all facilities were equally bad. Many of the families said their worst experiences were at facilities where they were first housed and processed after being apprehended. It was not clear from their descriptions – and from conversations with federal officials – if these “hieleras” were border patrol outposts or Ice (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention centers.

Most of the families were subsequently transferred to a building they called “la perrera” – literally, the dog pound – that appeared to correspond to the border patrol’s central processing center in McAllen, a low-slung industrial warehouse that is the largest facility of its kind in the American south-west, where they said the temperatures were warmer, the staff was kinder, they had burritos and apples instead of frozen sandwiches and they were at last allowed to shower. Fleeing gang violence

Staff at a Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen, where released detainees are offered food, showers, fresh clothing and medical attention before they continue on their travels, said they had expected to see the numbers drop from a high of about 300 people per day in May and June – the period when parents and children were being separated as a matter of policy – to about 60 or 80, but instead they were still seeing close to 200 people being dropped at a nearby bus station each afternoon.

What awaits them in immigration detention facilities, though, according to civil rights lawyers and doctors who have examined them, only retraumatizes them and raises disturbing questions about the US government’s willingness to adhere to its own guidelines and to a flurry of court orders that have, over the past two years, mandated more humane treatment of those in its care.

Facilities like the McAllen processing center were not designed to hold detainees overnight, and they have not been adapted as the demands placed on them have ballooned over the past decade. A series of memoranda and guidelines going back to 2008 and updated in 2015 say that detainees should not be held more than 72 hours and should have access to toilets, toiletries, potable drinking water and medical care.

Many – particularly men – said they had not even received blankets. New litigation filed this summer, based on accounts similar to those collected by the Guardian, has prompted a federal judge in California to order the appointment of a retired immigration judge to investigate conditions in detention centers with a view to mandating further changes. ‘It’s difficult to know who is doing what’

The advent of “zero tolerance” has, however, greatly increased pressure on the system, forcing federal officials to improvise solutions, and triggered an unusually large flurry of fresh litigation. Federal officials uncomfortable at the reports of mistreatment say it is very difficult to track who is doing what, especially since immigrants making the complaints do not know where exactly they were being held, or by whom.

Almost everybody who came through the clinic attended by the Guardian, run by a San Antonio-based group of volunteer doctors, nurses and social workers called Sueños sin Fronteras (Dreams without Borders), complained of flu symptoms or respiratory problems or both. Many of the ex-detainees said they had been forced to abandon their medicines – as well as clothing and other possessions – when they were released from custody.

Stories of medical negligence have also circulated. An HIV-positive Guatemalan woman who came through in July told one of the Sueños sin Fronteras team she had had her medicines taken away as soon as she entered detention and was kept in isolation away from her young child for five days.A five-year-old Guatemalan girl with appendicitis went undiagnosed for days at the McAllen processing center – despite repeated entreaties for help from her mother – and almost died when the appendix ruptured.

While deaths remain relatively rare, a recent Human Rights Watch report found that more immigrants had died in detention in 2017 than in any year since 2009. It deplored evidence of “subpar and dangerous practices including unreasonable delays, poor practitioner and nursing care, and botched emergency response”. ‘We treat those in our custody with dignity and respect’

CBP questioned whether the “hieleras” – the icebox facilities referred to by the detainees – were in fact run by its sister agency Ice. But Ice, in a statement of its own, said it did not have a detention facility in McAllen and that “previous reports have shown that [the terms ‘hielera’ and ‘parrera’] are used in reference to CBP facilities”.