Migrants, immigration activists, and even — allegedly — U.S. government officials have a nickname for the frigid, cramped holding cells in Customs and Border Protection facilities: las hieleras, or “the iceboxes.” Women and children detained at the border will routinely spend several nights crowded into these tiny rooms, according to reports, wrapped in foil blankets, shivering, and denied mattresses and medicine.
In 2013, three undocumented immigrants sued the U.S. government over abuses they said they’d suffered in CBP custody, specifically citing the bitterly cold temperatures. “[One woman’s] lips eventually chapped and split,” read one of their suits. “The lips and fingers of her two sisters and her sister’s child also turned blue.” Since then, it seems, little has changed: On December 19, BuzzFeed News reported that a five-month-old girl has been hospitalized with pneumonia after being held in a hielera for five days with her mother. Within two days of being released from detention, she had a 102.7-degree fever and was throwing up.
The U.S. government is incredibly opaque about the conditions in their facilities; a CBP representative wouldn’t confirm the existence of hieleras to the Cut, and the agency has previously insisted that their cells are kept at 70 degrees. Reports from watchdog organizations and first-hand accounts from those who’ve been held in detention paint a starkly different picture, though: one of rampant abuse, neglect, and dangerously low temperatures. Here’s what we know.
The conditions inside of hieleras are notoriously bad
According to a February 2018 report from the Human Rights Watch, the conditions in the detention run by CBP centers are abysmal. In addition to the frigid temperatures, migrants are reportedly subjected to intense overcrowding, forced to sleep on concrete floors, and denied showers, soap, and toothpaste. The first photos of a hielera were only publicly released in 2016; they show over a dozen people sharing a tiny, concrete room in a Tucson facility, huddled under foil blankets.
“They took us to a room that was cold and gave us aluminum blankets,” a Guatemalan woman who had been held in an Arizona detention center in 2017 told HRW. “There were no mats. We slept on the bare floor. It was cold, really cold.”
Another woman, who crossed with her two-year-old son in 2015, was detained in Texas described similar conditions. “We were completely soaked from crossing the river. We’d waded in the water up to our waists. The place they held us was really cold. They only gave us a paper blanket. That’s all we had to keep us warm,” she said. “We were sitting on the cement floor, completely freezing. In the end, I had to sleep seated upright, with my son in my lap, because I couldn’t let him lay down on the cement floor. He would have been much too cold.”
Because there is limited access to the detention centers managed by the CBP, there’s no way to be sure how long, exactly, hieleras have existed; like many of America’s more brutal immigration policies and practices, they became widespread in the wake of September 11, when immigration issues were passed over to the newly created Department of Homeland Security. (A 2013 report from Univision on the use of hieleras details conditions not much different than those reported today.) There’s also no way to gauge the exact temperature they keep the cells — but years of complaints paint a picture of unlivable circumstances.
“It seems pretty likely to me that the persistent issues with the temperature are connected to this basic indifference and desire to create a punishing environment,” Clara Long, the lead researcher on the HRW report, told the Cut. “I think CBP’s response so far has been very telling of that; these talking points that are like ‘this is why we don’t people to bring their children on these dangerous journeys.’ As if, somehow, the indifference of the U.S. government is a legitimate danger that migrants should have to face.”
In the past, the CBP has denied that their treatment of migrants is substandard. But in July, when the agency was involved in the family separations, Reuters reported that hundreds of migrants gave sworn statements detailing the mistreatment and abuses they faced in CBP custody. CBP declined to comment on the hieleras, or any individual cases that may have involved them, to the Cut.
At least two migrants have died after allegedly being held in hieleras this year.
In May, a Honduran woman named Roxana Hernández died in ICE custody after being detained in a CBP facility. Multiple organizations reported that she was held in a hielera before her death; official reports say she displayed “symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV,” and a subsequent investigation from the Transgender Law Center indicated she had been beaten before her death.
“She was processed and held for five days in the dreaded ‘icebox’ — holding cells with extremely low temperatures — in U.S. Customs and Border Protection, suffering cold, lack of adequate food or medical care, with the lights on 24 hours a day, under lock and key,” read a statement about Hernández’s death from the organizations Diversidad Sin Fronteras, Al Otro Lado, and Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
And earlier this year, an 18-month-old Guatemalan girl named Mariee died less than two months after being released from U.S. government custody in Texas, where she and her mother had been held for weeks. The first few days of their detention, they were held in a CBP hielera before being moved to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. While they were held at the CBP facility, they were “forced to sleep on the floor of a locked cage with as many as 30 other people,” according to a lawsuit her mother filed.
Mariee’s mother, Yazmin Juárez, and her lawyers said that the Mariee was never given adequate healthcare, and that Juárez’s repeated requests for medical attention were ignored. Juarez is now suing the United States for $60 million dollars in damages.
In a statement to the Cut, CBP declined to comment “due to pending litigation.”