Civil rights activists and lawyers say US officials subjected thousands of people to living in inadequate living conditions.
A new lawsuit against Customs and Border Patrol’s (CBP) is challenging “unacceptable” treatment of detained migrants in southern Texas as US President Donald Trump’s administration escalates a crackdown on both legal and undocumented immigrants.
Filed on Monday by the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and several lawyers, the lawsuit accuses CBP facilities in southern Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region of subjecting “thousands of individuals” to inadequate living conditions.
Since coming to office in January 2017, US President Donald Trump has issued a number of policy changes and unveiled a spate of new policies seeking to limit both irregular and legal immigration to the country.
The detained migrants, the Texas lawsuit says, are deprived “access to adequate food, water, medical services, fresh air and basic sanitation”.
The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas - Brownsville Division, and is one among a mounting number of lawsuits taking aim at the Trump administration’s efforts to clamp down on both documented and undocumented immigrants.
TCRP legal director Efren Olivares said that the primary goal of the lawsuit is “a court order requiring border patrol not to hold anybody in those facilities for longer than 72 hours”
“If they must hold them longer, they need to give them access to adequate sanitation, proper food, [and] access to counsel,” he told TRT World.
In addition to denying reasonable access to showers and imposing substandard hygienic conditions on the detainees, the lawsuit alleges, many of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit claim that “CBP denies detainees access to family members or counsel, either by phone or in-person visits”.
More alarming still, many detainees are pressured to abandon their right to apply for asylum, according to the lawsuit.
“It’s like coercing people into waiving their rights by making the conditions of detention so miserable for them that they prefer to give up,” Olivares added.
The lawsuit alleges that recent policy changes have left detainees held in the Rio Grande Valley facilities to endure overcrowding and “intolerable conditions”, including dehydration, exposure to infectious diseases, malnourishment, the denial of “proper” medical care, and other hardships.
“These conditions are endured within small, overcrowded concrete rooms known as ‘hieleras’—Spanish for ‘freezers’’—which are kept at uncomfortably low temperatures,” the lawsuit states.
Targeting legal immigration
On Tuesday, Santa Clara County and San Francisco County, both located in California, filed a separate lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule.
That rule permits the government to bar entry or deny green cards to immigrants contingent on their utilisation of public programmes like food stamps or Medicaid.
The new public charge rule, which was slated to be rolled out on Wednesday, will not apply to individuals who already hold green cards or are in the process of renewing their green cards, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
More than half a million people apply for green cards each year, according to the US government’s tally. The changes will require hundreds of thousands to fill out new forms declaring their “self-sufficiency”.
Elizabeth Almanza, Coordinator of Pro Bono Programs and Communications at the Texas-based American Gateways organisation, explained that efforts to limit immigration based on such criteria are tantamount to creating a “merit-based” system.
“The way we see this affecting our immigrant community is that it is a scare tactic,” Almanza told TRT World.
“It scares them, and it reduces the eligibility for those who want to do family-based immigration … and it makes it that much more difficult.”
During the October 2018 midterm elections, Trump ramped up his ongoing anti-immigrant rhetoric, falsely claiming that a US-bound caravan of mostly Central American migrants and refugees was tantamount to an “invasion”.
This year alone, Trump’s reelection campaign has referred to immigration as an “invasion” more than 2,000 times in Facebook ads, according to analysis by The Guardian, a UK-based newspaper.
After a gunman shot dead at least 22 people in El Paso, Texas, earlier this month, Trump condemned the alleged shooter’s manifesto as “racist hate”.
However, that manifesto mirrored Trump’s own “invasion” claims, citing a supposed “Hispanic invasion of Texas” as part of his motivation for carrying out the slaughter in the Texas border town.
As the 2020 presidential election campaigning intensifies, Democrats have lashed out at Trump for his administration’s immigration policies.
On Tuesday, Trump’s acting immigration chief, Ken Cuccinelli, told CNN that the message welcoming immigrants on the Statue of Liberty was only intended for people of European heritage.
Beto O’Rourke, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful from Texas, replied on Twitter: “This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people.”
Julián Castro, another Democratic candidate, criticised Trump’s treatment of immigrants in an ad on the Fox & Friends news programme, the Washington Post reported.
“President Trump: You referred to countries as sh*tholes,” Castro said in the ad, going on to blame the president for inciting the mass killing in El Paso.
Referring to Trump’s recent comments about four American congresswomen of colour, Castro added, “You urged American congresswomen to ‘go back’ to where they came from. You called immigrants rapists.”
A new poll published by Politico and Morning Consult found that Trump’s approval rating hovered at 42 percent, while 54 percent of Americans disapproved of the president.
Earlier this month, a Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll survey found that nearly two thirds of Americans want Trump and the US Congress to reach a deal that strengthens the country’s borders and provides a legal citizenship pathway to people under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme.
That same poll found that more than half of Americans believe that there are growing security and humanitarian crises on the US-Mexico border.
With the debate over immigration intensifying, American Gateways’s Elizabeth Almanza worries that the 2020 election season will see more harsh changes to immigration policy.
“Things are being said in campaigns that just don’t stop in the wake of so many attacks on the immigrant community,” she said. “It seems already in the last three years that there is something new every week.”