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Federal judge agrees to hear class-action lawsuit on migrant conditions

A Border Patrol vehicle rides the border fence near Douglas, Ariz., in this 2012 file photo. (Photo by Andy Ellison/Cronkite NewsWatch)

A Border Patrol vehicle rides the border fence near Douglas, Ariz., in this 2012 file photo. (Photo by Andy Ellison/Cronkite NewsWatch)

Saying there’s evidence to support their claims, a federal judge on Monday agreed to allow a class-action lawsuit against the Border Patrol over alleged “inhumane and punitive conditions” at its facilities in Arizona.

Judge David Bury denied a request by the federal agency to throw out the case, saying the challengers have made sufficient allegations to support their claims that those detained by the Border Patrol are denied adequate sleep, sanitary conditions, medical care, food and water, and warmth at holding centers. He said it will take a trial to determine whether the fact the limited length any individual is subject to those conditions — sometimes several days — is illegal.

But in a separate ruling, the judge said that affidavits from those who had been locked up in the holding centers provided “sufficient evidence … to plausibly support each of the asserted deficiencies.” And Bury said that the conditions about which migrants are complaining appear to be fairly widespread rather than isolated.

What that means, Bury said, is he will consider not just the specific complaints of the three people who sued but what could be hundreds of thousands of others who pass through Border Patrol holding cells, both in the past and in the future.

More to the point, if Bury finds their claims to be valid, he could order the federal agency to make extensive changes.

“It’s a huge victory because the court validated what thousands of detainees and advocates have been saying for years about the deplorable conditions in the short-term detention facilities,” said Nora Preciado, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “The conditions there are inhumane.”

Preciado acknowledged that Monday’s order is not a finding by Bury that Border Patrol has done anything illegal but only that the claims of unconstitutional conditions can go to trial. But she said that Bury had to review the claims of the three former detainees and determine they had a case in order to allow the lawsuit to go forward.

“While there is no finding on the merits at this point, there was a very careful weighing of the evidence,” Preciado said.

There was no immediate response from Border Patrol.

The lawsuit filed last year names three individuals — one Tucson man and two women who are not identified — who attorneys say were denied food, adequate clothing and sleep.

But lawyers said what they experienced is not unique. They said a majority of the more than 72,000 people detained in the Tucson sector in a six-month period in 2013 — a “representative sample” the lawyers sought through public records requests — endured the same conditions.

Attorneys also said while the agency’s own guidelines say holding cells should be used for no more than 12 hours, about 80 percent were held for at least twice that long, a third held for 48 hours and  almost 8,000 locked up for three days or more, all in horrible conditions.

Bury rejected arguments by federal attorneys that each person who alleges harm should be required to file his or her own complaint. He said the claims are common: denial of basic necessities such as bedding, food, water and adequate health care.

“The question of what standard applies to the treatment of civil immigration detainees is, itself, a question capable of — indeed, suited to — classwide resolution,” the judge wrote.

In fact, Bury wrote, Border Patrol is not claiming that the conditions cited vary by facility.

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