Custody Conditions

Customs and Border Protection routinely detains individuals for prolonged interrogations, pending adjudication of their claims based on persecution and/or torture in their country of origin, pending removal proceedings or execution of a removal order, and, sometimes, without any legal basis at all. Notably, immigration detention is civil, not criminal, in nature. Noncitizens detained by CBP generally either have committed no criminal offense or already have successfully served a criminal sentence. Nevertheless, CBP holds these individuals in jails or jail-like institutions where many are subjected to such horrors as abuse and mistreatment by officials, deprivation of adequate medical care, unlawful searches, and appalling living conditions. Some CBP detainees report confinement in hieleras, or “iceboxes”, with multiple occupants, no heating, no furniture, no showers, and a single common sink and toilet with no privacy.


Blanca Gomez Arellano v. United States, No. 2:19-cv-00141 (S.D. Tex., filed May 13, 2019).

This is a wrongful death lawsuit brought by a mother whose son who died trapped in a tractor-trailer container while the vehicle was impounded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). On October 13, 2017, CBP officers detained a tractor-trailer for inspection and discovered an undocumented individual inside. CBP then took the driver and undocumented individual into custody and impounded the truck. Three days later, CBP officers noticed a foul smell and liquid leaking from the truck, and they contacted the local sheriff’s department, who found a decomposing body.

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Lewis v. Unknown Agents of the United States Department of Homeland Security, No. 3:19-cv-00600 (S.D. Cal., filed Apr. 1, 2019)

Sams v. Unknown Agents of the United States Department of Homeland Security, No. 3:19-cv-00612 (S.D. Cal., filed Apr. 2, 2019)

These lawsuits arise from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s detention of two individuals who were experiencing withdrawal from opiates and alcohol and were denied medical treatment. The plaintiffs bring claims under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), alleging violations of their Fifth Amendment Rights.

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On February 11, 2019, six asylum-seeking mothers and their children filed administrative claims for money damages for the trauma they suffered when torn apart under the Trump Administration’s family separation policy. Each family was fleeing persecution in their country of origin. Instead of finding safety in the United States, the government forcibly took the children from their mothers and then left them in the dark about where they were taken and when—if ever—they would see each other again. The mothers and their children suffered greatly during the separations, which in some cases lasted for months. For example:

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Doe v. Nielsen, No. 15-00250 (D. Ariz. filed June 8, 2015)

Immigrant rights groups have filed a class-action lawsuit challenging detention conditions in CBP (Customs and Border Protection) detention facilities. The complaint alleges that Tucson Sector Border Patrol holds men, women, and children in freezing, overcrowded, and filthy cells for days at a time in violation of the U.S. Constitution and CBP’s own policies. Detained individuals are stripped of outer layers of clothing and forced to suffer in brutally cold temperatures; deprived of beds, bedding, and sleep; denied adequate food, water, medicine and medical care, and basic sanitation and hygiene items such as soap, sufficient toilet paper, sanitary napkins, diapers, and showers; and held virtually incommunicado in these conditions for days.

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Lawsuits Filed against CBP Challenging President Trump’s Travel Ban

On January 27, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” This executive order called for an immediate halt to entry for any immigrant or nonimmigrant from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, as well as an immediate 120-day halt to all entries by refugees and an indefinite suspension with respect to Syrian refugees. Many individuals who were in the air at the time the executive order was signed were detained by CBP upon arrival in the United States, including lawful permanent residents and individuals with valid visas for entry.

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Complaint Against CBP Abuses Following President Trump’s Travel Ban

On February 6, 2017, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic filed a letter with the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (OIG), detailing the systemic abuses and violations of the rights of individuals lawfully entering the United States through airports in the days following the issuance of President Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order (“Executive Order”). This Executive order suspended entry into the United States for individuals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The complaint to OIG contains 26 declarations from both noncitizens—including long-term LPRs—and attorneys about abuses at the hands of CBP. As the declarations discuss, both new arrivals with valid visas and long-time U.S. residents were detained for excessive periods, denied access to attorneys even after a court ordered CBP to provide access to counsel, and pressured into giving up their valid visas. The organizations conclude by calling on CBP to end its policy of detaining immigrants without allowing them access to counsel.

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Ashcroft v. Abbasi, Nos. 15-1358, 15-1359 & 15-1363 (Supreme Court)

The Supreme Court has accepted certiorari to determine, among other issues, whether a Bivens damages remedy is available to noncitizens who were arrested on civil immigration charges and thereafter subjected to the most restrictive conditions of administrative segregation that exist in the federal prison system. Although they were detained in the weeks following the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, they were not actually suspected of terrorism. Nonetheless, under orders from then-Attorney General Ashcroft and others, they were treated as if the FBI had reason to believe they had ties to terrorist activity, simply because they were (or appeared to be) Arab or Muslim, and were encountered – even coincidentally – in the course of a terrorism investigation.

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Arizona Interior Enforcement Complaint 

In June 2016, the ACLU of Arizona filed a complaint on behalf of ten individuals with U.S. Department of Homeland Security oversight agencies and the Department of Justice demanding investigations into abuses arising from Border Patrol checkpoint and roving patrol stops. Several of these incidents resulted in agents wrongfully detaining innocent residents for days in filthy, frigid, and overcrowded detention facilities.

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Administrative Complaint Against Border Patrol Re: Denial of Food to Asylum Seekers Awaiting Processing at San Yisidro Port of Entry, filed by ACLU of San Diego

On March 17, 2016, U.S. citizen and immigration attorney Nicole Ramos escorted her client “M.” to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where M., a transgender woman with disabilities, waited in line to request asylum. Ms. Ramos had prepared a letter for M. describing her disabilities and special needs. Approximately eight hours after M. had arrived at the port of entry, Ms. Ramos communicated with M. and learned that she had not received any food. She also learned that when M. tried to present the letter to a CBP officer, the officer told her that “the letter doesn’t mean shit.” Ms. Ramos immediately contacted CBP, who told her that individuals awaiting credible fear interviews were fed three times daily. Another ten hours later – more than 18 hours after arriving at the port of entry – M. had still not received any food, despite multiple requests to CBP officers. A CBP officer on duty told M. that she was responsible for bringing her own food to the port.

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Administrative Complaint Re: Extreme Temperatures in CBP Short Term Detention Facilities

On February 2, 2016, NIP/NLG, in collaboration with Programa de Defensa e Incidencia Binacional  and the ACLU of New Mexico, filed an administrative complaint on behalf of persons held by CBP in short-term detention facilities where they are exposed to extreme temperatures. The administrative complaint also challenges the agency standards  addressing temperature controls in short-term facilities, but asserts that the agency fails to abide even by these standards.

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FTCA Administrative Complaint by Immigrant Mothers’ Against DHS/CBP/ICE

On August 10, 2015, five immigrant mothers sent administrative complaints to the Department of Homeland Security under the Federal Tort Claims Act for the abuses the women and their children had suffered while detained in ICE custody. These women, who fled their home countries due to endemic violence suffered at the hands of criminal gangs and intimate partners, sought asylum in the United States. After entering the custody of CBP/ICE, they endured deplorable detention conditions, including woefully inadequate medical and mental health care, little to no legal information as to their rights and/or fates, no educational services for the detained children, and lack of access to necessities such as food, water, clothing, and bathing facilities.

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FTCA Administrative Complaint of Honduran Family Denouncing the Hieleras (dated July 18, 2015)

In an attempt to escape severe violence, the claimants—a husband and his then-pregnant wife—fled to the United States from their native Honduras with their toddler in 2013. After crossing the border, the family turned themselves in to CBP officers and requested asylum. They were held in the hieleras for nearly 72 hours, without access to adequate food, water, hygiene, necessities, blankets, bedding, warmth, sleep, and medical care. In July 2015, they filed an administrative complaint against the United States for the serious mistreatment they suffered while in CBP custody. They raise claims of negligence, gross negligence, invasion of privacy, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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Alba Quinonez Flores v. United States of America, No. 1:14-cv-03166 (E.D.N.Y. filed May 20, 2014)

Filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, this suit seeks damages for the physical and psychological injury Ms. Quinonez Flores suffered at the hands of CBP while she was detained in holding cells, known as hieleras (iceboxes), in CBP’s Rio Grande Valley Sector. The complaint alleges that CBP negligently placed Ms. Quinonez Flores in detention conditions that they knew or should have known posed a substantial risk of harm, failed to oversee the agents who managed the day-to-day operations of the detention facilities, and that their acts and omissions constituted the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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FTCA Administrative Complaint of Pregnant Minor (dated July 7, 2014)

Claimant, who is a minor, was taken into Border Patrol custody in May, 2014. Shortly after being taken into custody, agents took her to a hospital where it was determined that she was five months pregnant and in good health. She was released by the hospital back to the custody of Border Patrol. Sometime after her return to the Border Patrol station, she began to experience abdominal pain. She asked to be taken back to the hospital, but agents refused. The agents insisted that she remain seated even though the pain was so great she needed to lie down. Her water broke and she began to bleed. The agents refused to render aid or take her back to the hospital. Finally, another agent came to her aid and took her to the hospital. She alleges that she lost the baby because she did not receive immediate aid.

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In re: Honduran minor

The Respondent is a Honduran youth in removal proceedings who has moved to terminate the proceedings based upon the treatment he received as a minor in both CBP and ICE custody. In 2013, when he was 17 years old, he traveled alone from Honduras to the United States. Once in the United States, he was apprehended by a Border Patrol agent. He informed the agent of his age, but the agent responded that he did not believe him. Although he was initially placed in a holding cell with children, he was soon moved to one with only adult men, none of whom were related to him. He was not provided with the notice of rights that CBP is required to serve on minors. Instead, he was coerced into signing a voluntary departure form which incorrectly listed his birth date as a year earlier, thus implying that he was 18 rather than his actual age of 17.

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In the Matter of XXXXX – Redacted Motion to Terminate Removal Proceedings (based on custody conditions and failure to report child abuse)

Respondent, a 15 year old unaccompanied minor, was arrested by border patrol agents in Texas. CBP detained her in an icebox, and failed to provide her with sufficient food, water, clothing and shelter or medical assistance for approximately eleven days. Respondent was not permitted to shower, brush her teeth or go outside.  She was given only a nylon blanket and forced to sleep on the cold floor in a room crowded with other people.  She became physically sick with cough and fever.

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Administrative Complaint to DHS Office of Inspector General and DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on Behalf of Unaccompanied Children Abused by CBP (filed June 11, 2014)

On June 11, 2014, various organizations submitted an administrative complaint to the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) and DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) documenting 116 cases of unaccompanied immigrant children who were abused by Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officials. Documented from approximately March to May of 2014, the complaints include numerous reports of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse; denial of medical care; abusive and invasive apprehension tactics; appalling custody conditions; and denial of adequate food and water, among a host of other abuses.

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Americans for Immigrant Justice, Inc. v. U.S. CBP, et al., No. 1:14-cv-20945 KMW (S.D. Fla. Filed Mar. 13, 2014)

In 2013, AI Justice interviewed over 100 individuals who had been detained in CBP holding cells in the Valley prior to being transferred to ICE detention in Miami.  These individuals uniformly reported deplorable conditions in the holding cells.  They reported that the cells are referred to by Border Patrol agents as “hieleras,” which is Spanish for “iceboxes.”  The agents call them this because they keep the temperatures in the cells unbearably low, so that the detainees always are extremely cold.  Additionally, the holding cells are overcrowded; have no beds, although most detainees reported being there at least several days, with some being held up to two weeks; have no bathing facilities and little to no toiletries; and have toilets that are out in the open.  The detainees also complained of being served inadequate food.  The AI Justice FOIA seeks records relating to these holding cells.

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Leonel Ruiz o/b/o E.R. v. U.S., No. 1:13-cv-01241 (E.D.N.Y., filed Mar. 8, 2013)

On March 11, 2011, E.R., a four-year-old U.S. citizen, was detained by CBP following her arrival at Dulles Airport. E.R. was returning home to New York from Guatemala with her grandfather when her flight was diverted from JFK to Dulles airport due to bad weather. Following an issue with her grandfather’s paperwork, E.R. was detained by CBP for the next 20 plus hours. CBP gave her only a cookie and soda during the entire time, and provided nowhere to nap other than the cold floor. Although CBP officers had the phone number of E.R’s parents, they failed to contact them for nearly 14 hours, and repeatedly refused her grandfather’s requests to be allowed to call them.

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FTCA Administrative Complaint against the United States Denouncing Hieleras (filed Mar. 12, 2013)

Jose Alberto was apprehended at the United States Texas border by CBP and was told by an agent that he was being taken to a “hielera.” Mr. Alberto was placed in a small, freezing cold holding cell with approximately thirty men. The temperature was so cold that Mr. Alberto’s lips split and his face became red and felt sunburned. The cell had no beds or chairs, and had a single toilet, a sink, and two urinals out in the open. The only water provided to the men was in a single thermos, shared by all. The water smelled like bleach and burned Mr. Alberto’s throat when he drank it.

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FTCA Administrative Complaints against the United States (filed Mar. 12, 2013)

On various dates in early 2013, four women were apprehended at the United States Texas border by BP agents. After being apprehended, they were taken to what the agents called a “hielera,” which is Spanish for “icebox” or “icemaker.” The hieleras are holding cells which agents often maintain at very low temperature. The women all describe cells in which dozens of detainees were crowded together. The cells had no beds, no chairs and each had only a single toilet and sink sitting in the open in the corner. The women were kept in the cells for as long as 13 days.

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FTCA Administrative Complaint Regarding Woman Who Suffered Stroke While in CBP Custody (filed Mar. 12, 2013)

In March 2011, Ms. Takem-aishetu was returning home from a cousin’s funeral in Minnesota when her bus made a routine stop in Toledo, Ohio. There, a BP agent boarded the parked bus, a gun visible in his holster, and questioned Ms. Takem-aishetu about her immigration status. Ms. Takem-aishetu was arrested and placed in a BP vehicle where she was forced to wait for eight hours without food and water. Ms. Takem-aishetu finally was taken to the Sandusky Bay Processing Center close to midnight, where she spent another several hours in questioning and processing, her leg shackled to a bench. After repeatedly asking agents to use the bathroom, Ms. Takem-aishetu could wait no longer and urinated on herself. She was forced to sit all night in her urine-soaked jeans until being transferred to immigration detention at the county jail the next morning.

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