AI Justice provides “boots on the ground” experience that informs smart immigration policy solutions. Our advocacy work includes high-impact litigation; educating the public and policymakers; media outreach and promoting constructive reform of our broken U.S. immigration system. We publish groundbreaking reports that document real-life stories and provide evidence of destructive anti-immigrant measures that are an assault on the fundamental civil liberties of all.
AI Justice testifies before Congress; the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; the Organization of American States, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; and the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Numerous AI Justice clients, including asylum seekers, human trafficking survivors, and unaccompanied minors inimmigration custody also have testified before Congress.
CURRENT ADVOCACY INITIATIVES
Campaign to end abuse of unaccompanied immigrant children in detention
Widespread abuse of unaccompanied immigrant children at the hands of U.S. border officials spurred a group of civil and human rights organizations, including AI Justice, to file a complaint on behalf of more than 100 children, each of whom reported experiencing abuse and mistreatment while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the border enforcement agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The administrative complaint with DHS—the department’s only mechanism for seeking redress—was filed by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), the ACLU Border Litigation Project, Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice), Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project (Esperanza), and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (Florence Project).
Children detained by CBP across the country have reported scores of examples of verbal, sexual and physical abuse; prolonged detention in squalid conditions; and a severe lack of essential necessities such as beds, food and water.
The complaint describes Border Patrol agents denying necessary medical care to children as young as five-months-old, refusing to provide diapers for infants, confiscating and not returning legal documents and personal belongings, making racially-charged insults and death threats, and strip searching and shackling children in three-point restraints during transport. Reports of such abuse have been documented and reported for years, but no reforms have been implemented, nor have any actions been taken to hold agents accountable.
Children referenced in the complaint, many of whom fled violence and persecution in their home countries, include:
- H.R., a seven-year-old boy, was severely developmentally disabled and suffering from acute malnourishment when he was apprehended, but CBP held him in custody for approximately five days without any medical treatment. He was eventually hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery.
- D.G., a 16-year-old girl, was detained with adults. When CBP officials searched D.G., they violently spread her legs and touched her genital area forcefully, making her scream.
- M.R., a 15-year-old girl, traveled from Guatemala with her two-year-old son. Both M.R. and her son became sick while in CBP custody, but M.R.’s requests for medical attention were ignored or dismissed for approximately five days, until she and her son were finally taken to a hospital.
- K.A., a 14-year-old girl, had her asthma medication confiscated by CBP officials and proceeded to suffer multiple asthma attacks in the filthy and overcrowded CBP holding cells. After the first asthma attack, officials threatened that they would punish her if she were faking.
- C.S., a 17-year-old girl, was detained in a hielera (freezer) in wet clothes. Her clothes did not dry for three and a half days due to the frigid temperature in the holding cell. The only drinking water available to C.S. came from the toilet tank, and the bathroom was situated in plain view of all other detainees with a security camera mounted in front of it.
The complaint’s recommendations include:
- Enhanced CBP oversight, including creation of an independent oversight body;
- Binding and enforceable short-term detention standards;
- Creation of a uniform complaint process at DHS that includes confidential, expedited processes by which children can safely report abuse and receive timely recourse;
- Adequate training for all officers who may encounter unaccompanied immigrant children;
- Timely investigation into the complaints of abuse;
- Accountability for any agent who violates the law and/or agency guidelines; and
- Publication of the results of any investigations.
The complaint was filed with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties as well as the DHS Office of Inspector General. The complaint emphasizes that abuses of unaccompanied children by immigration officials have been documented and reported to DHS for years but the government has not implemented reforms or taken any action to hold agents accountable.
CBP "Hielera" CAMPAIGN
In 2013 AI Justice launched a national campaign to end abuse and mistreatment of immigrants by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”).
In recent years grave civil and human rights abuses of migrants and U.S. Citizens held in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) short-term custody facilities have been documented. CBP has no public, legally enforceable standards for detention conditions in the more than 700 “hold station” facilities operated by CBP at ports of entry and along the U.S. border.
Require CBP to maintain basic standards in its detention facilities to ensure compliance with U.S. and international law while executing their law enforcement duties. Require CBP to create enforceable standards applicable to all short-term custody facilities and hold rooms run by CBP, which address:
- Minimum conditions for detention, including the provision of adequate nutrition, appropriate climate, and medical care
- Dissemination of legal rights information in commonly-spoken languages
- Access to visits by lawyers, consular officials, and non-governmental organizations
- Enforceable policies for credible fear procedures relating to asylum-seekers
In January 2013, “Amelia,” a twenty-eight year old mother of three and domestic violence survivor, fled to the United States to seek asylum. When she encountered CBP officers at the Texas border, they put her in a freezing cold holding cell with no beds, no chairs, and a single sink and toilet sitting in plain view in the cell. It was so cold that her lips chapped and split, her face hurt and peeled. She was held for several days, but not provided with access to a bath, shower, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, soap, feminine hygiene products, or a change of clothes. She was fed no more than a single sandwich once or twice a day, resulting in headaches from hunger. The only water available was provided in a single thermos shared by Amelia and the other 25 or so women in the cell. She was asked to sign documents written in English, which she could neither read nor understand. While she initially refused, out of desperation she eventually signed the documents which included an order for her expedited removal. Despite her fear of returning to her home country and in violation of CBP procedures and U.S. law, Amelia was never asked if she was afraid to return.
Amelia’s case is not uncommon. Organizations working with immigrants, asylum-seekers, and U.S. citizens who have been held in CBP short-term custody facilities hear regular reports of civil and human rights violations. These include denial of medical care, confiscation of medicine such as insulin, failure to provide access to a phone to communicate with family members or legal counsel, verbal and physical abuse, coercion into signing forms that have not been explained, failure to provide copies of legal documents signed, overcrowding, and failure to return key belongings and personal identity documents prior to repatriation.
These violations have been occurring for years and have been widely reported, including two reports by No More Deaths and the February 2013 briefing of the Kino Border Initiative.[i] The University of Arizona’s recently released report, based on more than 1,000 interviews conducted in migrant shelters from Tijuana to Nuevo Laredo and in Mexico City, found that: [ii]
- 11 percent reported physical abuse by U.S. authorities.
- 23 percent reported verbal abuse by U.S. authorities.
- 45 percent did not receive sufficient food while in U.S. custody.
- 39 percent had possessions taken and not returned by U.S. authorities.
- 26 percent were carrying Mexican identifying documents and had at least one document taken and not returned.
In addition to extensive documentation, organizations have also filed numerous administrative complaints and legal claims based on these abuses.[iii] In May 2012, the ACLU submitted an administrative complaint concerning serious abuses against travelers in CBP custody at ports of entry. And in March 2013, Americans for Immigrants Justice filed Federal Tort Claims actions on behalf of four immigrants who were held in CBP custody, including in the case of “Amelia” described above. Despite these publications and litigation, efforts to engage CBP administratively to improve policies and practices, while at times welcomed, has resulted in no obvious changes to the treatment of individuals within the agency’s custody.
For years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), another branch of the Department of Homeland Security, which holds migrants while waiting for the conclusion of their immigration case, has had public detention standards. The creation of these standards has significantly improved the conditions in which migrants are held and has reduced the number of deaths and reports of mistreatment. CBP should be required to create such standards. Indeed, in recent polling of registered voters, over 90% of respondents—regardless of party affiliation—said they support creating “greater oversight and accountability” of CBP.[iv]
As part of its CBP Campaign to end abusive and inhumane detention conditions at the border in CBP hold stations, AI Justice has undertaken the following advocacy efforts:
Protect Family Values at the Border Act – AI Justice, working in conjunction with the Women’s Refugee Commission, led the effort for introduction in the United States Congress of federal legislation which would mandate humane detention conditions at the border. On September 19, 2013, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard introduced the Protect Family Values at the Border Act, legislation that would establish standards for humane treatment by CBP of people detained at the border. The Act would also ensure that families are not separated or endangered when they are deported.
“The sheer number of complaints about CBP personnel using excessive force over the past five years is deeply troubling,” said Congresswoman Roybal-Allard. “Based on reports of human rights abuses on the border, it is critical to establish clear standards for the humane treatment of migrants and give the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the flexibility it needs to keep families together. This bill will help institutionalize a culture that treats individuals with fairness, dignity and respect and reflects our values as Americans,” Rep. Roybal-Allard told the press when the legislation was introduced. The bill is currently pending in the Senate and has not yet been brought to a vote.
Humane Short-Term Custody Act – AI Justice, working in conjunction with the Women’s Refugee Commission, helped craft legislation—the Humane Short-Term Custody Act—that was introduced in the United States Senate by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in December 2013. The legislation that would set minimum standards to ensure that people held in Customs and Border Protection (CPB) short-term detention facilities are not subjected to inhumane conditions. “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,” Senator Boxer told the press when the legislation was introduced. The bill is currently pending in the Senate and has not yet been brought to a vote.
Executive Branch Advocacy
In partnership with other immigrant advocacy organizations, AI Justice has met and continues to meet with senior Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) and CBP staff advocating for adoption of public, enforceable standards for the humane treatment of all immigrants in U.S. government custody.
In March 2014, AI Justice and the Women’s Refugee Commission prepared and submitted to the Obama administration recommendations for actions that could be taken by the administration without the need for legislation that would help improve detention conditions at the border.
[AI Justice/WRC – Recommendations to DHS re Short-Term Custody]
As a result of this advocacy, in April 2014, DHS announced its intention to adopt standards for detention conditions in CBP facilities. AI Justice, in collaboration with other immigrant advocacy organizations, is now providing input to DHS on those proposed standards.
Media/Public Advocacy & Education
Since launching the CBP campaign, AI Justice has worked to educate the public regarding the need for detention condition standards at the border. AI Justice published a report on conditions at the border and has worked with major media outlets across the United States to bring attention to the inhumane and unlawful treatment of men, women and children in CBP facilities at the border.
- The “Hieleras:” A Report On Human & Civil Rights Abuses Committed By U.S. Customs And Border Protection Agency
- USA Today, Lawsuits allege abuse by border patrol agents, March 13, 2013
- LA Times, Immigrant groups complain of ‘icebox’ detention cells, December 6, 2013
- Miami Herald, Immigrants recount horror of being detained in ‘iceboxes’ before transfer to South Florida, April 20, 2014
- American Immigration Council's Report on the hieleras
[i] ACLU Demands Federal Investigation Into Charges of Abuse by Border Agents: Abuse of U.S. Citizens and Non-Citizens Alike Necessitates Greater Oversight and Accountability (May 10, 2012). Available at http://www.aclu.org/immigrants-rights/aclu-demands-federal-investigation-charges-abuse-border-agents; AI Justice Takes Action Against Border Patrol for Abusing Immigrant Women Available at: http://aijustice.org/ai-justice-takes-action-against-border-patrol-for-abusing-immigrant-women
[ii] Belden Russonello Strategists, “American attitudes on immigration reform, worker protections, due process, and border enforcement,” (April 2013), available at: http://cambio-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/BRS-Poll-for-CAMBIO-APRIL-16-2013-RELEASE.pdf
[iiii] See for example, No More Deaths. Crossing the Line: Human Rights Abuses of Migrants in Short Term Custody on the Arizona Sonora Border. (September 2008). Available online at: http://www.nomoredeaths.org/Abuse-Report-Crossing-the-Line/View-category.html; No More Deaths. A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity In Short-term U.S. Border Patrol Custody (2011). Available at: http://nomoredeaths.org/cultureofcruelty.html; Kino Border Initiative. Documented Failures: the Consequences of Immigration Policy at the U.S.-Mexico Border. Available at: http://www.jesuit.org/jesuits/wp-content/uploads/Kino_FULL-REPORT_web.pdf
[iv] See University of Arizona report, In the Shadow of the Wall: Family Separation, Immigration Enforcement and Security, p. 24 (March 15, 2013). Available at: http://las.arizona.edu/sites/las.arizona.edu/files/UA_Immigration_Report2013web.pdf