Footage of women and children in immigration holding cells in Douglas, Arizona, September 2015, made public in 2016 after a group of migrants challenged detention conditions in the cells. 

US Customs and Border Protection via American Immigration Council

(Washington, DC) – United States border agents routinely hold families, including infants, in freezing cells when it takes them into custody at or near the border, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 44-page report, “In the Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in US Immigration Holding Cells,” is based on interviews with 110 women and children. Human Rights Watch found that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents routinely separate adult men and teenage boys from other family members. The practice runs counter to agency policy that families should be kept together whenever possible while in holding cells. After the initial period of detention in the freezing holding cells, sometimes for days, men usually remain separated from the rest of their family upon transfer to longer-term detention facilities.

“The persistent practices in immigration holding cells are degrading and punitive,” said Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Immigration authorities should keep families together and shouldn’t detain children overnight in holding cells.”

Detention and family separation have serious adverse consequences for mental well-being, especially for those who have already suffered trauma. Most of the women and children Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had fled their home countries after they were targeted for violence or other persecution.

Time in the holding cells was “the most difficult and traumatic” period of detention for women and children apprehended by US immigration authorities, a team of psychologists found in a 2015 study.

All immigration detainees have the right to be treated with dignity and humanity, and children are entitled to specific safeguards. Human Rights Watch found that conditions in immigration holding cells are in breach of international standards and CBP policies, and likely violate the terms of federal court orders.

Women and children told Human Rights Watch they spent up to three nights in cells with uncomfortably low temperatures, sleeping on the floor or concrete benches with only a foil blanket to protect them. In many cases, border agents required them to remove and discard sweaters or other layers of clothing, purportedly for security reasons, before they entered the cells.

Holding cells often do not provide hand soap to women and children, meaning they cannot hygienically clean their hands before and after eating, feeding infants, using the toilet, or changing diapers. Most of the women and children held in these cells said they were not allowed to shower during their time in holding cells.

One woman interviewed said she and her-five-year-old son were soaked after wading across the river. “We were sitting on the cement floor, completely freezing,” she said. “In the end, I had to sleep seated upright, with my son in my lap, because I couldn’t let him lay down on the cement floor.” CBP officials have consistently denied that holding cells are cold, even as the women and children held there have regularly reported that the temperatures in these facilities are much colder than in other immigration detention centers. In October 2017, for example, the Women’s Refugee Commission reported that nearly all of about 150 women interviewed in 2016 and 2017 said they had been held “for days in freezing cold CBP facilities.”

CBP officials did not answer Human Rights Watch’s specific questions about conditions in holding cells, citing ongoing litigation. They instead pointed to agency policies and stated that CBP follows all applicable laws and policies, including court orders.

In court filings, the agency has attempted to justify its failure to provide sleeping mats to women and their children by saying that the cells are not designed for holding people overnight. Yet nearly all the women and children Human Rights Watch interviewed spent at least one night in a holding cell. Other studies, including one by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), have consistently found that two-thirds of migrants in holding cells remain there for at least one night, and tens of thousands of migrants spend 72 hours or more in holding cells each year.

A preliminary court order, limited to holding cells in Arizona and upheld on appeal, says that all migrants held for more than 12 hours must be given sleeping mats and the opportunity to wash. In another court case that covers holding cells in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, a federal judge ordered CBP to remedy abusive conditions for children placed in holding cells.

CBP should ensure that all immigration holding cells provide hygienic conditions, including access to soap, showers, toothbrushes, and toothpaste, for all detained migrants, Human Rights Watch said. The agency should set temperatures in cells that are comfortable for detained people.

Holding cells should be used only for very short periods. People should not be held there overnight unless it is unavoidable, and children should never be held there overnight. People held overnight should be provided with sleeping mats and blankets.

US immigration authorities should also avoid splitting up families when they are apprehended. Instead, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should identify and provide alternatives that keep families together.

“Conditions in immigration holding cells are not only needlessly cruel but also demonstrably harmful, particularly for people who have suffered persecution,” Bochenek said. “The United States should not persist in practices that traumatize children and their families.”