The U.S. Border Patrol's parent agency on Monday issued nationwide custody standards, a little more than a year after its jails were overwhelmed with Central American children fleeing to the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has come under criticism for its custody conditions from advocacy groups who compiled extensive complaints from immigrants alleging frigid temperatures, poor hygiene, overcrowding and mistreatment.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of Los Angeles, ruling in July on immigrant detention policy, said children were being held at Border Patrol stations in "widespread and deplorable conditions," with cold temperatures, absence of trash cans and lights on at all times.
The standards govern a wide range of scenarios and circumstances from safely guarding an immigrant's personal belongings to use of handcuffs and other restraints. Temperatures should be set at a "reasonable and comfortable range," food should never be used as a reward or punishment, and reasonable efforts should be made to provide showers to anyone approaching three days in custody.
Border Patrol cells are designed to hold people for only a few hours — usually a day or two at most — before they are deported, turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has longer-term detention facilities or, for unaccompanied children, transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours.
The crush of Central American children crossing last year in South Texas fueled widespread complaints that people were being held too long and under poor conditions at Border Patrol stations.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske has defended the agency's performance and suggested complaints of cold temperatures were a result of people coming into air-conditioned room from excessive heat.
"The goal — and we keep a really close eye on this — is to have people out of our custody in 24 hours," Kerlikowske said in an interview in August. "They're given water and food and a chance to rest, and, of course they have to be processed. I mean, they're gone. And that's our real goal, to have them out of our custody in short as time as possible."
Kerlikowske said Monday that the standards offer a "consistent and clear policy" for people in custody. Advocacy groups, who had made the detention standards a priority, generally had lukewarm reactions.
Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office, commended the agency for an "initial effort" and its attention to care for children, disabled, and gay, lesbian and transgender people. But he said the standards fall short overall and that the agency lacks independent oversight.