NOGALES, Mexico — At breakfast time inside a food bank near the border, a nun leads a group of 30 or so recent deportees in the Lord’s Prayer. When she’s finished, an employee takes the microphone and asks, “How many people felt cold when they were with the Border Patrol? Raise your hand.”
Todos, they say. Nearly every hand goes up.
After the meal, Alexy Luis Lopez, 18, and his younger brother, Bryan, recall the two cold days they spent inside U.S. Border Patrol cells. To stay warm, they huddled together with other migrants.
Alexy says the agents took his sweater and left him with a T-shirt. When he told an agent he was cold soon after his arrest, Alexy remembers the agent saying, “maybe we would think about it two times before trying to cross again.”
This is a common complaint from migrants when they’re released from U.S. custody at many points along the border. While a detention cell isn’t designed with comfort in mind, human rights groups and migrants who have entered the country illegally say conditions inside some U.S. Border Patrol stations have become unsafe. Temperatures in some cells are so low that migrants like Alexy say it’s a form of punishment to keep them from crossing again.
Temperature Check Inside A Station
Just a few years ago, the Border Patrol station in Nogales, Ariz., saw up to 800 migrants pass through its doors every day. Now, the daily trickle has slowed to 65, said spokesman Andy Adame. Within 12 to 16 hours, those migrants are booked and sent on to Tucson where the deportation process continues.
Inside the cells, a few men sit idly on a metal bench. Others try to sleep. They’re covered with something that resembles a thin sheet of tin foil.
“They’re all given these solar blankets when they first walk in,” said Adame, pointing to a box outside the cell door. The agency once used cloth blankets, but they were too hard to clean, he said.
“You see them covered up so I guess it is a little chilly in here, it’s not overly cold.”
While Adame says this, a man pokes his head out from underneath the foil blanket.
“It's cold,” he says in Spanish. Adame gives the man two small packages – extra sheets of foil.
“All they got to do is tell the officers and we’ll give them another blanket,” he said.
We leave the cell, looking for a thermostat. There’s some confusion about where it’s kept. A few minutes later we find a row of them inside the station’s control room. The thermostat says 70 degrees — enough to keep down the spread of disease, Adame explains.
“We have never had anybody get sick on us because it’s too cold in there," he said.
The Complaints Add Up
Human rights groups say cold rooms have become a widespread practice across the border, and now the legal battle against them has started.
Earlier this year, the group Americans for Immigrant Justice filed complaints on behalf of detainees held in South Texas. Court documents claim the detainees suffered psychological harm and came down with physical illnesses associated with exposure to the cold, lack of sleep, and inadequate access to food, water and toilets.
These documents claim border agents routinely refer to the cells as las hieleras, or the freezers. Border Patrol denied a request to visit a Texas station, and agents deny using the term.
“To subject people to this type of treatment for any period of time is unacceptable,” said James Lyall, an ACLU attorney in Tucson who monitors conditions along the border. “But to do so, for sometimes days, is really egregious.”
Conditions In Texas Worsen
Bryan Luis Lopez, 16, says he huddled with other people inside a detention cell in Arizona to stay warm.
The battle over illegal immigration has moved east. With stepped-up border security in places like Arizona, the route that migrants take to the U.S. is shifting. Up to 800 people a day now crowd into a single South Texas border station, according to Christopher Cabrera, an agent and union leader for the Rio Grande Valley chapter of the National Border Patrol Council.
“Sometimes they just pile up and pile up and we put the bodies where we can,” said Cabrera, who adds that people in crowded cells share two unsanitary toilets. The air inside the station is dusty and stale. Some migrants are stuck in short-term detention for days at time, Cabrera said, far longer than the agency’s policy of 12 hours to move people through the system.
As for the cold?
“Where we’re at it’s the exact opposite,” he said. “The air conditioning can’t keep up with the amount of people who are in there because of the body heat. So the air conditioning seizes up.”
Yet that’s not what some migrants report.
“We’re talking about temperatures so low you tremble,” said a migrant recently released from U.S custody. We agreed not to use her name because she’s afraid of retribution in her native El Salvador. The woman claims Texas cells were ice-cold — the temperatures at the nearby station in McAllen so low that her fingers turned purple.
She echoes a common claim of many deportees.
“They keep it cold so you’ll sign your deportation papers and give up hope. Some people can’t stand it. They ask to sign so they can go back to their country," she said.
This story was produced in collaboration with Univision and The Center For Investigative Reporting.