BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — An internal memo written by administrators with the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector set certain standards that agents must follow to ensure the comfort and care of migrants, including issuing each a toothbrush, sleeping mat and access to phone calls.
The Aug. 22 memo — written weeks after an onslaught of migrants were held in overcrowded area Border Patrol facilities that drew national attention — was revealed Friday during a federal court hearing in a first-of-its-kind class-action lawsuit filed by migrants seeking more humane standards be set for adult migrants who are held by federal authorities for more than 72 hours.
On Thursday in Brownsville’s U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, 16 petitioners testified before Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr. and repeatedly said they were held for weeks without being given a bath, toothbrushes, adequate food or drinks or clean clothing.
One man testified he pulled out his own tooth because he wasn’t given access to a dentist, and many testified that they were forced to lay in urine and filth-covered floors and were unable to change or wash their clothes. They were unable to call friends or relatives or speak with lawyers. And some were held for 50 days or longer.
On Friday, Carmen Qualia, acting executive officer for Rio Grande Valley Sector’s Border Patrol Law Enforcement Operational Programs Division testified that she wrote the Aug. 22 memo, which mandated more humane conditions and amenities for migrants who are in Border Patrol care until being turned over to other federal authorities.
The memo stipulates that “upon arrival at a detention facility, adult migrants must:
- Undergo a medical screening
- Be screened for “at-risk” detainee determination
- Be separated by gender
- Be assigned to a detention location (cell) via the intake process
- Be provided a snack (to include food and water)
- Be provided a Mylar blanket (repeat daily at breakfast)
- Be provided a sleeping mat (if operationally feasible)
- Be provided a toothbrush (repeat daily at breakfast)
- Be provided personal cleansing wipes (repeat daily at breakfast)”
After 72 hours of detention, adult migrants must be provided with the following and it is to be repeated every 72 hours, according to the memo:
- An offer to make an outgoing telephone call.
- Access to shower/bathe
- A sleeping mat for at least 8 hours per day if the subject was not previously provided a sleeping
- Mat at intake
Although migrants must be issued a toothbrush, the memo does not stipulate they are given toothpaste, which several migrants testified last week they never received after weeks in Border Patrol detention.
On Friday, U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Patrol Agent Rodolfo Karisch was the first witness to testify on behalf of the government. Karisch is named as a defendant in the case along with Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan; U.S. Customs Border Protection Acting Commissioner John Sanders; and U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost.
But when questioned about the Aug. 22 memo, Karisch did not indicate any prior knowledge of it. Nor did he know who wrote it. He testified that he has over 3,000 employees and he delegates a great deal of power and authority to his administrators.
And he repeatedly testified that his agents were “overwhelmed” and unable to meet the demands of so many detainees.
“My agents were changing diapers and caring for sick children to the best of their abilities,” Karisch testified. “We were not prepared.”
Karisch left court after 90 minutes of testimony and Qualia then took the stand and readily admitted that she wrote the “guidance memo.”
The memo also mandates that migrants are given three “regularly scheduled” meals per day, including one hot meal.
Migrants testified on Thursday that they lived for weeks on cold bologna sandwiches given to them by agents, and occassionally were fed tacos.
The memo also lists an entire set of rules that apply to pregnant detainees and children, including two hot meals per day for children who must be fed every six hours.
‘A rare opportunity’
Efren Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing the plaintiffs, said testimony and material disclosed in this “is a very rare opportunity to hear people testify on record in federal court on conditions inside holding facilities in an open hearing.”
Cousins Jonathan Fernando Beltran Rizo and Kevin Eduardo Rizzo Ruano, both from Guatemala, testified Thursday that they were denied medical attention when they were held in a CBP facility in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Sector.
Beltran Rizo testified that he developed a high fever and was visibly sick, but agents would not take him to see a doctor. Other men in his crowded holding cell began banging on the iron rails to demand agents remove him for medical care. He was eventually taken to a local hospital where he was given an injection and returned to detention with oral antibiotics.
Days later, he said his 25-year-old cousin, Rizzo Ruano, also began running a fever and appeared to have a respiratory infection. Beltran Rizo testified that agents refused to take Rizzo Ruano to see a physician. Rizzo Ruano said Beltran Rizo shared his medicine with him. When agents dispensed his oral medication to him, Beltran Rizo tucked it into the crook of his cheek and pretended to swallow it, then he would remove the pill and give it to his cousin, who ended up recovering from his illness.
The class-action lawsuit hearing ended on Friday afternoon on the preliminary injunction request. Judge Rodriguez said he should give a ruling in about three weeks.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.