By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Civil rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Border Patrol complaining immigrants were unlawfully held for extended periods in freezing, filthy holding cells in Arizona, plaintiffs' attorneys said on Wednesday.
The lawsuit, on behalf of three undocumented immigrants detained at the Tucson Border Patrol Station, says detainees are mistreated for days in what were designed to be hours-long holding cells in southern Arizona detention facilities.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson on Monday cited a wide range of abuse and neglect, including being held in overcrowded cells and denied adequate food, water, sleep and medical care.
“With the filing of this lawsuit, it’s no longer going to be possible for Border Patrol to continue denying and ignoring its inhumane and unconscionable mistreatment of individuals in its custody,” said James Lyall, a plaintiff’s attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The complaint, which seeks class-action status, asks a judge to order the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to improve detention conditions.
The filing targets one of the nation’s busiest sectors in dealing with the flow of immigrants entering the country illegally from Mexico. Last year, agents made more than 87,000 arrests there.
The customs agency said in a statement that it takes seriously the welfare of those detained in its facilities, which it says are maintained in accordance with the law.
"These facilities are designed to be short term in nature and to house individuals until they can be processed, turned over to another agency or repatriated," the statement said.
The lawsuit paints a grim picture of men, women and children held for extended periods as they await transfer or are released.
Through records requests, plaintiffs' lawyers determined that 80 percent of 72,000 people detained in sector detention facilities during the first six months of 2013 were held longer than a 12-hour maximum set out in agency guidelines.
The lawsuit details extreme conditions where detainees are first stripped of outer clothing and then placed into frigid cells packed with other immigrants. Lights glare day and night.
Basic hygiene and sanitary items like soap are lacking, and there is no access to showers. Beds consist of concrete benches or the floor, the lawsuit says.
“From the moment people are apprehended they are treated in a way that can only be described as subhuman,” said Nora Preciado, a plaintiff’s attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.
(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)