No Water, No Toilet Paper, No Tampons: How the US Treats Border Detainees


Alba Quiñones Flores started her period the first week that she was in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection. Every morning, a guard delivered sanitary napkins to her cell of 20 women—but only four or five pads for all of them. Quiñones couldn't scramble to the door fast enough to claim one. She'd injured her ankle crossing the Mexican border before CBP picked her up near Falfurrias, Texas, and she still hadn't received first aid. A CBP agent had thrown out the pills and insulin she needed to treat her myriad health problems, including hypertension, diabetes, migraines, anxiety, and convulsions. So Quiñones wound up using the same, single sanitary pad for her entire period. She tried to extend its life by covering it in toilet paper, but without success, and her pants and underwear became soaked in menstrual blood.

This is just one of a series of allegations that Quiñones has lobbed at CBP in a lawsuit she filed in federal court in late May. Quiñones, who fled her native El Salvador to escape domestic abuse, is among the first former CBP detainees to sue the agency for abuse suffered while in custody, and her complaint is one of a string of lawsuits that immigrants rights advocates kicked off in March 2013 to highlight dismal conditions in CBP facilities.

Quiñones' allegations are commonplace, according to immigration attorneys and immigrant rights advocates who have interviewed hundreds of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants temporarily detained by CBP every year.

"Her story was particularly horrendous—but lots of these stories are pretty horrendous," says Melissa Crow, the director of the legal division at the American Immigration Council, a group that advocates for immigrants' right. "We hear people say, 'They took my insulin,' 'I broke a bone and didn't get any treatment,' all the time," adds Jennifer Podkul of the Women's Refugee Commission. Detainees have little recourse. The American Immigration Council obtained more than 800 complaints of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse lodged by detainees between January 2009 and January 2012, and found that 97 percent of complaints resulted in no punishment.

The problems plaguing CBP facilities are directly linked to overcrowding at detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Beginning in 2006, conservative lawmakers forced ICE to meet detention quotas. At the same time, the number of ICE detention facilities has shrunk. CBP's role is to detain suspected illegal immigrants—for a very short period of time—before turning them over to ICE custody. (An internal CBP directive from 2008 reads, "Whenever possible, a detainee should not be held for more than 12 hours.") But with space at a premium in ICE facilities, CBP outposts increasingly have been used to warehouse the backlog of thousands of suspected undocumented immigrants. In South Texas' Rio Grande Valley sector alone, where CBP held Quiñones, there are nine stations housing some 3,500 detainees—nearly half of them children. [...]


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