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US judge says conditions in overcrowded border holding cells violate Constitution

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US Border Patrol agents supervise as Salvadorian immigrants wait to be transferred to the McAllen Border Patrol facility on July 02, 2019 in Los Ebanos, Texas. (Photo by AFP)

A US judge has ruled in favor of refugees, held in overcrowded border detention centers under inhumane conditions, banning authorities from holding asylum seekers for more than 48 hours in a facility in the state of Arizona.

After a seven-day trial, federal Judge David Bury handed the legal victory to refugees in a lawsuit that alleged US Border Patrol facilities hold detainees in extremely inhumane and unsanitary conditions.

The federal judge ruled that conditions in US Customs and Border Protection migrant holding cells in the agency's Tucson sector violated the Constitution.

Bury ordered US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities in Tucson to provide a bed, blanket, shower, potable food and water, and medical assessment for every migrant held more than 48 hours.

Under the ruling, authorities are not allowed to hold people for more than 48 hours “unless and until CBP can provide conditions of confinement that meet detainees’ basic human needs for sleeping in a bed with a blanket, a shower, food that meets acceptable dietary standards, potable water, and medical assessment performed by a medical professional."

The order also made permanent a 2016 preliminary injunction, under which the Tucson Sector was obliged to issue clean mats and thin blankets to migrants held for longer than 12 hours, and to allow them to clean themselves.

In his ruling, the judge also banned the use of bathrooms for sleeping, calling it "unsanitary and degrading."

"Surveillance video reveals overcrowding so severe that, at times, detainees have no place to sit, much less lie down on mats; detainees (including children) sleep in toilet stalls for lack of space; detainees (including mothers holding children) are forced to climb over benches to reach toilets and drinking water; and detainees are forced to sleep sitting up," he said.

This September, 2015 file image made from US Border Patrol surveillance video shows a child crawling on the concrete floor near the bathroom area of a holding cell, and a woman and children wrapped in Mylar sheets at a US Customs and Border Protection station in Douglas, Arizona. (Via AP)

About 12,000 refugees were reportedly held in custody for more than 72 hours in the facility last year.

Migrants, in detention, are currently held on the floors in facilitates, which are notoriously known as “hieleras,” or iceboxes, with mylar blankets.

Bury also criticized CBP for having done little to remedy issues, especially around overcrowding and migrants’ inability to sleep.

“Today’s decision is a tremendous victory for communities everywhere fighting courageously to uphold human dignity and the rights enshrined in our Constitution,” said an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, Alvaro Huerta.

He said the ruling creates a precedent that extends constitutional minimums to migrants in CBP custody.”

US border detention facilities were built for short-term stays, with cells in odd shapes, which reduce the number of sleeping mats that can comfortably fit on the ground.

They often do not have the capacity for the large number of asylum seekers, mostly from Central American counties, who cross into the US illegally.

Thousands of Central Americans have crossed Mexico toward the United States in caravans in recent years, fleeing chronic poverty and brutal gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The number of arrests and detentions along the US southern border has plunged 75 percent since early last year.

Migrants, mostly from Central American countries, have been facing a crackdown over the past three years, under President Donald Trump’s policy to curb immigration to the US and in particular at the US-Mexico border.

Trump has even threatened to punish Mexico and Central American countries economically if they fail to “curb the refugee flows”.

His anti-immigration policy was a centerpiece of his 2016 election campaign and is now a major issue as he seeks re-election this year.

Trump has long promised to build a wall on the US border with Mexico to physically stop the inflow of migrants, but has failed to fulfill his pledge.

The president also launched the "zero tolerance" policy in 2018 that saw more than 2,300 children separated from their parents at the border, before the government backed down amid a massive public outcry.

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