The Otero County Processing Center on Jan. 4. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Torture is inherent to the United States immigration enforcement process, according to a new report released Tuesday that draws from hundreds of interviews with immigrants detained at an El Paso area Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility.  

Through cataloguing and analyzing complaints of detainees at ICE’s Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., the report identified abuse throughout several stages and facets of the immigration process, including pre-detention, conditions within ICE detention, and legal issues in ICE detention. 

“(ICE immigration detention is) not supposed to be punishment, but it clearly is punishing,” said report co-author Nathan Craig, an anthropology professor at New Mexico State University and volunteer with Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention. People in ICE detention aren’t facing criminal charges; they are in a civil process that determines whether they can stay in the country.

A wide range of harms suffered by people in ICE detention are discussed in the report, including: use of force and “chemical suppressants” against a group of asylum seekers who protested to obtain meetings with their deportation officers; exposure to extreme cold temperatures in Customs and Border Protection “temporary” holding cells for periods as long as 52 days; prolonged periods of solitary confinement; and widespread medical neglect. In some cases, untreated mental health issues were linked to post-traumatic stress from other abuses suffered during the immigration process. 

One person attempted suicide who had been detained at a “hielera” (freezer) temporary holding cell for nearly three weeks before being moved to Otero; another person attempted suicide while in solitary confinement. One interviewee suffered family separation after being held at gunpoint as his wife was raped, an event that took place while they were forced to stay in Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols. 

The report cites several definitions of torture, including the UN Convention against Torture or other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which is an action by a public official to inflict pain or suffering on another to coerce information or punish someone for their actions, and the United States Code definition of torture.  

The report was a collaborative undertaking between AVID and Innovation Law Lab, with a dataset derived from legal intake interviews with 232 people detained at Otero County Processing Center between August 2019 and June 2020. Otero, an ICE detention facility 30 miles from El Paso, is staffed by Management and Training Corporation, a private prison company that has raised concerns about the facility’s financial viability

Although the study specifically draws from interviews with immigrants detained at Otero, study coauthors clarified that the scope of the article is broader, exploring fundamental dynamics of the U.S. immigration system. 

“We were all very observant of the fact that the complaints were across the board, across the process that people are made to go through. It wasn’t just complaints about ICE detention, where the (intake interviews) were taking place, but it was also maybe about the time that they had to spend in Mexico waiting for a hearing (due to the Remain in Mexico / Migrant Protection Protocols policy) or maybe about the allegedly temporary CBP conditions,” said AnaKaren Ortiz Varela, advocacy coordinator at Innovation Law Lab and report coauthor. 

Other recent research studies have also documented and analyzed torturous conditions resulting from the U.S. immigration system, including a January 2021 article in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which found that treatment of migrant children by the Department of Homeland Security was consistent with definitions of torture under international protocols and conventions. 

Cameroonian asylum seekers detained at a Mississippi ICE facility filed a complaint in October citing allegations of torture by ICE officers and other officials at the facility, according to a December article by Mississippi Today, and a report by the Department of Homeland Security found that 11 immigrants had been kept in solitary confinement for over 60 days, two for as long as 300 days. Prolonged solitary confinement is considered by some to be a form of psychological torture. 

In response to a request for comment about this report, ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said, “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody, and it provides several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”

Complaints of torturous conditions

The most common complaints detainees described were medical problems in ICE detention, due process issues, and concerns with Customs and Border Protection detention conditions.

The Otero County Processing Center on Jan. 4. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The complaints detailed not only issues experienced within the Otero facility, but throughout the immigration process, including accounts of prolonged stays within the CBP temporary holding cells nicknamed “hieleras” (freezers) because of their notoriously cold temperatures.

Although the hieleras are not designed for overnight custody, the average length of stay reported by detainees in the report sample was 14 days, and the longest among them was 52 days. The report sample showed that detainees were held at these holding cells for seven times longer on average in 2019 than they were from 2011-2015. 

Most of the immigrants who were kept at a hielera slept on the floor with a mylar blanket, with some described sleeping standing up or in shifts, due to overcrowding. All of those who were held at one of these CBP temporary cells complained of the frigid temperatures.

“I can think of no reason why you would keep them this cold other than to make them unpleasant to be in. And then to not provide any bedding or any blankets to people who are in there — these are facilities that are for very short term holding by definition, and the government has pushed the length of time that people can be held in them,” Craig said.

The report described hielera conditions as being a form of “clean torture,” in that it leaves no visible markings yet causes physical harm. It also compares hielera conditions to “cold cells,” an enhanced interrogation technique used by the Central Intelligence Administration. 

CBP spokesperson Roger Maier denied that the agency used cold cells to punish detainees, saying that would violate CBP’s National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search policy. “At every Border Patrol station, before every shift, the supervisor checks the temperature of every cell, and logs it in an electronic system,” Maier said.

Once immigrants arrived in ICE detention, more than two-thirds of complaints regarding detention conditions involved medical issues. Concerns ranged from medical neglect of existing physical and mental conditions, mental health issues that eventually worsened to the point of self-harm and suicide attempts, and concerns regarding ICE’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Medical neglect is responsible for two (2019) deaths at OCPC, and the present sample demonstrates that the problems with medical care are ongoing,” the report summary said. 

ICE spokesperson Zamarripa said that comprehensive medical care is available for people detained by ICE, and said “staffing for detainees includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care.”

Due process concerns were the third most frequently raised complaint among the report sample. These legal issues brought up by detained immigrants included barriers to accessing legal counsel, barriers to available legal remedy, and the prioritization of deportation above due process. 

“One of the major takeaways that I thought was super important for readers is that immigrant detention makes it really difficult for somebody to have success in their immigration case. Immigrant detention puts up a lot of barriers for somebody to be successful in whatever type of immigration relief they’re pursuing, and we outline that in several different points in the report,” said coauthor Marissa Nuñez, EPIC coordinator at Innovation Law Lab. 

ICE inspections don’t find complaints of abuse

Among Otero detainees interviewed for the report, 66 percent cited complaints about the U.S. immigration process.

The rate of complaints among the detainees in this study was significantly higher than the complaint rate obtained by official facility inspectors contracted by ICE (4-8 percent), a discrepancy that co-authors Craig and Margaret Brown Vega discussed in the report and during an interview with El Paso Matters. 

The Otero County Processing Center is a private immigration detention facility in Chaparral, N.M. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“The inspections process actively legitimizes the detention system and conceals its inherent problems,” said the report, noting that the inconsistency in the complaint rates calls into question the legitimacy of the inspections process. 

“There’s marked differences in terms of who’s asking the questions and what’s in there,” Craig said in an interview with El Paso Matters. “When you read (the inspector’s) description of the complaints, it’s very clear that what they’re trying to do is explain away the validity of any of those complaints.”

A 2009 appropriations bill by Congress mandated that if an ICE facility failed an inspection twice, they could no longer receive federal funding, Craig said.

“What happened following (the 2009 bill), is that the rate of failing inspections dropped off. The scrutiny of those inspections, it appears, began to be much more superficial once there were actually teeth put into (the consequences of) failing inspections,” he said. 

The report concludes that ICE facilities are “impervious to reform,” and that the abolition of ICE is the only just solution to these ongoing issues. Calls for abolishment of ICE have been widespread among human rights groups and research studies of ICE facilities, including a recent study published by Detention Watch Network that found the presence of ICE detention facilities had exacerbated COVID-19 outbreaks in adjacent counties. 

“The system has been doing damage for a long time. It should not be reformed, and that’s something that we want to be very clear on,” Brown Vega said. “Any efforts, any thoughts that people may have about improving the conditions are completely misguided. There is no way to do that, and I think people need to take a step back and say that we really just need to end immigration detention. Places like Otero should not exist.”

Cover photo by Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.