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End ‘la hielera’ in immigrant detention

February 10, 2019 GMT

“Could you describe your time in the immigration detention center?” The young woman and her son nervously shuffled at the sound of this question. After taking a second to gather herself, she responded in Spanish, “Well, some guards were nice and others were very mean. I am just glad to have my family out of ‘El Congelador.’”

“El Congelador” is Spanish for “the freezer.”

Other immigrants had a different name for the Customs and Border Protection holding center they were in — “La Hielera” (the Ice Box). Many assume it is an ironic play on words, since ICE stands for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but those who have been in the center know “La Hielera” is no joke. In a lawsuit filed against CBP, a woman claims to have been so cold that her lips chapped and split, and her sister’s extremities began to turn blue.


Some believe that the low temperatures are being used to stop the spread of bacteria. In an article, a spokesperson from the Rio Grande Valley sector of the CBP claims that the temperature of the facility helps to do just that. Hospitals use this technique, but there is (or should be) a big difference in how sick patients are treated in cold temperatures and how people in an immigration detention facility are treated. Unlike people being detained in an immigration center, a patient’s body temperature is closely monitored and controlled to ensure it is safe, and most contact throughout the day is with medical professionals.

Dr. Marsha Griffin, who works at a clinic in a Catholic Charities center that cares for immigrants after they have been released, noted that there is no good reason to keep an overcrowded space that has children in it at such a low temperature. According to Griffin, the cold can exacerbate an illness and cause it to linger, which gives the illness a better chance to spread to others who are being held in the overcrowded facility.

Many immigrants and immigration advocates also believe there is no constructive reason for the centers to be that cold. They believe the frigid temperatures are used as deterrence and, sometimes, punishment. Using temperature as a punitive measure is strictly against CBP policy, but there is an overwhelming amount of testimony that claims that is exactly what it’s used for.

These actions also violate a decades-old agreement reached by the federal government. The Flores agreement sets standards for the humane treatment (among other things) of detained immigrant children — including regulation of temperatures at which immigrant children can be kept while being detained. And while the temperatures are not outrageous — between 66 and 80 degrees — it’s common knowledge among detainees in South Texas facilities that those guidelines are not being adhered to.


For instance, in 2017 a federal district court noted “substantial non-compliance with the Agreement” among CBP stations located within the Rio Grande Valley sector. The court talked of 2- and 3-year-olds with wet diapers in “freezing cold.” The case cites a declaration that claims that when children would cry because of the frigid temperatures, officers “would turn the temperature down even further” after yelling at the children to shut up.

Whether cold is being used as an untenable form of deterrence/punishment or an ineffective form of sanitation, all it is effectively doing is serving as a form of elongated physical and mental torture of a vulnerable group of people.

Samuel David Garcia, a South Texas native, is a member of the Harvard Law Class of 2019. Joseph Gallardo, a San Antonio native, is also a Harvard Law School student.