Lawyer for immigrants says his clients suffered in a bed-less, toilet-less cell agents called the “icebox,” with their fingers and lips turning blue and their skin cracking from the cold.
A group of U.S. citizens and illegal immigrants filed a series of lawsuits on Tuesday claiming they were abused by Customs and Border Protection agents, including being forced to sit in freezing holding cells for days in southern Texas.
The suits, filed by advocacy groups on behalf of 10 plaintiffs, allege a pattern of abuse by Border Patrol agents that has increased as their ranks have grown from just over 4,000 in 1993 to more than 21,000 in 2012.
“I don’t think these are isolated cases,” said Melissa Crow, who is representing one of the plaintiffs and is the director of the Legal Action Center at the American Immigration Council, an immigration advocacy organization. “The spectrum of cases we’re presenting exemplifies the culture of impunity that has taken hold at CBP.”
Agency spokeswoman Jenny Burke said CBP does not comment on pending litigation but said they stress “honor and integrity” in every aspect of their mission.
“We do not tolerate misconduct or abuse within our ranks and we fully cooperate with all investigations of alleged unlawful conduct, on or off duty, by any of our CBP employees and contractors,” Burke said in a statement.
One of the cases was filed on behalf of four people who were illegally crossing the border and detained by Border Patrol agents. The suit claims that the four — one man and three women — were placed in a holding cell described by CBP agents as the “hielera,” or “icebox.”
Joseph Anderson, a lawyer representing the immigrants and the director of litigation for Americans for Immigrant Justice, said they were forced to stay in the cell for up to six days before they were shipped to other facilities to await deportation proceedings. He said his clients suffered in the bed-less, toilet-less cell, with their fingers and lips turning blue and their skin cracking from the cold.
When he asked his clients why they called it the “hielera,” he said they all heard that phrase from Border Patrol agents themselves.
“Based on having heard this from many, many people, and having each of them describe the same temperatures, it became clear to us that they didn’t just have a great air-conditioning system,” Anderson said.
Among the plaintiffs is a 63-year-old woman who said she had to sit in the back seat of a car for eight hours without food or water, and a 4-year-old girl from New York who was prohibited from entering the country at an airport following a trip to Guatemala because her parents were illegal immigrants.
Lucy Rogers, 27, a social worker and naturalized U.S. citizen, alleged that in December 2011 she was pulled over by Border Patrol agents near her home in Upstate New York while transporting two clients to a medical visit. She said she did not know the clients were illegal immigrants. Rogers said the agents ripped her car keys out of her hand, held her for several hours on suspicion of human trafficking and confiscated the GPS unit of her car.
She was released, but Rogers said she is taking part in the lawsuit to dissuade other agents from doing the same to others.
“I’m thinking about my son and so many other kids who are born here,” she said.”
Several of the lawsuits were filed in federal district courts. Some were administrative complaints filed directly with the federal government, which gives the government an opportunity to weigh the case and decide whether to offer a settlement. If that fails then the plaintiffs can file a lawsuit in federal court.
Written by Alan Gomez, USA TODAY; 5:31a.m. EDT March 13, 2013