Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Representing Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Detainees held in "iceboxes"

Brittany McKinley, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, contributed to this article which was published in the July-August 2014 NewsNotes.

On June 26, as part of the commemoration of Torture Awareness Month, a delegation of torture survivors (members of the Torture Abolition and Survivors’ Support Coalition, TASSC), visited the offices of members of Congress to urge them to support legislation that would stop the inhumane treatment of immigrant detainees through the use of ice box detention cells.

One of the survivors, a man from Afghanistan who had worked as an interpreter with the U.S. Army before receiving death threats from the Taliban, told staff in Rep. Mark Meadows’ (R-NC) and Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-UT) offices about his efforts to obtain asylum status in the U.S. Like many asylum-seekers, he was placed in detention; he was kept in a frigid short-term cell pejoratively called a hielera — Spanish for freezer or icebox – before being moved to a long-term detention center for 22 months. These "icebox" cells are kept at extremely cold temperatures in hopes to coerce detainees – who are not given blankets or warm clothing, but rather a thin sleeping mat – into agreeing to deportation. Another TASSC member, Konjet from Ethiopia, described her horrific experience in an icebox: There was no privacy, no information about their immigration status, no blankets were given, a cold floor, the restroom was a hole in the middle of the floor, and they were only fed a small sandwich once a day. Furthermore, detainees are not given any sort of medical attention or legal representation.

This inhumane treatment further psychologically damages people like Konjet and the Afghan translator, who are dealing with the effects of having been tortured. Yet, thousands of torture survivors have been detained in short-term holding cells operated by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), then transferred to long-term jail-like facilities used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Survivors in detention can be re-traumatized because the jail-like facilities in these detention centers can resurface painful memories of the prisons, military camps, police stations and secret jails that their government used to torture them. Many of the survivors, who are unfamiliar with the English language and afraid of being thrown in federal prison, sign Expedited Removal Orders given to them by the CBP, which waive their rights while in custody. These orders are signed without the knowledge that the detainees would be sent back to the countries from which they are seeking asylum. CBP officers threaten the detainees with more time in the "icebox" or a trip to federal prison if the order is not signed.

Faith in action:

Part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CBP does not allow visitors to see these short-term detention cells. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) are pushing legislation to establish standards for the treatment of immigrants held in CBP facilities. Both Sen. Boxer’s Humane Short-Term Custody Act (S. 1817) and Rep. Roybal-Allard’s Protect Family Values at the Border Act (HR 3130) would require oversight of the CBP by having the DHS Inspector General examine the facilities every year. These inspections would ensure that standards such as adequate climate control, potable water, access to toilets, access to medical care and special treatment for pregnant women, among other things, are being adequately met. Rep. Roybal-Allard’s bill not only includes the enforcement of standards seen in Sen. Boxer’s bill but would also require physical and mental screenings of detainees, immediate physical health needs addressed by healthcare professionals, the ability to make a complaint with the Office of the Inspector General as well as the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and prompt notice to make a telephone call at any time after their arrest. Contact your senators and representative and urge their support of S. 1817 and HR 3130, respectively.