By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Immigration detainees are being held for prolonged periods at a temporary Border Patrol holding facility in the Riverside County city of Murrieta because of “lack of space elsewhere,” a Border Patrol spokesman said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection standards say that detainees should generally not be held at such facilities for more than 72 hours. The Murrieta station does not have beds and is not set up for in-person visits with lawyers or others, said Border Patrol spokesman Theron Francisco.
Attorneys and advocates say detainees have been held at the facility for weeks without being able to contact their families or visit with their lawyers, and without access to showers, toothbrushes or beds.
The Border Patrol does not “have interest in housing people any longer than absolutely necessary,” Francisco said. “Similar to police stations, Border Patrol stations were designed as temporary holding facilities in order to process individuals prior to moving them on to long-term facilities.”
The facility, which as of Wednesday held 93 people, “provides mattresses to the extent possible and all individuals are provided blankets,” Francisco said.
He said showers and hygiene products are provided to detainees but did not respond to a question about how often they are provided. Francisco also said officials were looking into how many people had been held at the station for longer than 72 hours but that detainees are not usually there longer than that.
Advocates and lawyers say they began hearing about men held there for prolonged periods in recent months.
Unlike temporary holding stations near the border, there are no children at the Murrieta station.
Border officials have said the agency is in an emergency as it deals with the largest monthly total of apprehensions at the border in more than a decade.
But at least some of the men who were taken to the Murrieta station had not recently crossed the border. They lived and worked in southwest Riverside County or northern San Diego County and were stopped by Border Patrol agents while driving.
Lawyers say keeping people long term at the Murrieta station unconstitutionally deprives them of basic rights. In cases they have worked on, the lawyers say, the men while at the station were not presented with charging documents describing the basis for their detention.
“They’re incommunicado. … There is no legal process. They are not in removal proceedings. They haven’t been charged. There’s no indication that anything is going to happen to them. They are basically disappeared into a legal black hole,” said Eva Bitran, an attorney with the ACLU who filed a petition on behalf of one detainee in late May.
In that case, Eludio Sanchez, a mechanic who lived in Wildomar with his wife and three children, was stopped by Border Patrol agents after delivering a car he had been working on in Murrieta. He was held at the station for more than two weeks, according to the petition.
Sanchez was “denied all contact with the outside world for the first nine days of his incarceration” and after that was allowed only one four-minute phone call with his attorney, according to the court filing.
The day the ACLU filed a case in federal court alleging Sanchez’s constitutional rights were being violated, he was transferred to the Otay Mesa Detention Center, a long-term facility in San Diego, Bitran said. He was later released without bond, said lawyer Mercedes Castillo, who represents him in his immigration case.
Castillo said that when Sanchez’s family hired her, she began calling the station asking to speak to her client.
“I would say my client should have the right to access counsel and they would say, ‘No this is a temporary facility’ and while he is here he will not be able to make phone calls and he will not be able to see his attorney,” she said.
Castillo said she was finally able to speak with him by phone after someone from the Guatemalan Consulate in San Bernardino intervened.
“He told me, ‘I thought my family had forgotten about me,’” she said.
Attorney Mickey Donovan-Kaloust said her client, a gardener, was stopped by Border Patrol agents while driving in his work truck in early June. He was still in the facility as of this week, more than three weeks later, she said. She asked that his name not be published for fear that it would affect his immigration case.
Donovan-Kaloust said she had been allowed to speak with her client by phone twice, once for about 15 minutes and once for about five minutes.
He told her he did not have a toothbrush or toothpaste, that he and his fellow detainees were required to use the toilet without privacy and that he had not been able to bathe or change his clothes.
He also told her that there were about 25 other men in a room with him, at least some of whom had also been at the station for prolonged periods. Two men had been there for 26 days, he said.
Her client “and everyone in the room with him ask every day when they might be transferred and they are always told that (the agency) doesn’t know,” Donovan-Kaloust said.
She said she believes detainees have been allowed to call consular offices but not family members.
Francisco, the Border Patrol spokesman, said detainees are allowed to make phone calls but did not say how often those calls are permitted. The agency will accommodate conversations with attorneys “if there is urgent need for a person to speak with” a lawyer, he said.
In such cases, the attorney must submit documentation requesting the visit and agents will “provide the person in custody with access to a telephone to contact his or her attorney until he or she is transferred to a detention facility.”
Donovan-Kaloust said the Border Patrol is making contradictory statements.
They say detainees “are not entitled to any rights because it’s a temporary holding facility. But then they’re holding people for weeks,” Donovan-Kaloust said. “They’ve stated that they are overwhelmed and at capacity and that’s part of the reason why they’re having issues transferring people out. But it also appears they’re stopping people in the community.”
Jennaya Dunlap of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice said her group knows of four cases in the last 40 days in which Border Patrol agents had arrested drivers in and around southwest Riverside and northern San Diego counties and held them for weeks at the Border Patrol station.
The group hears about the cases when family members call their hotline because they have no idea where their loved ones are.
“We’ve reached out to try and get them to let us have access to folks and they just always say we don’t have proper facilities to provide access,” she said. “If you are going to do this, then at least set up a mechanism that allows them to have access to legal counsel and their families.”