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Groups Sue for Information on Open-Air Immigration Jails

March 15, 2024 (2 min read)

CGRS, Mar. 15, 2024

"Al Otro Lado and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) have filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to compel the government to release information on its policies and practices at open air detention sites.

Since at least May 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has forced thousands of migrants to await processing for asylum or other relief in dangerous and squalid outdoor camps along the California-Mexico border (which CBP euphemistically terms “gathering sites”), without reliable access to food, water, shelter, warmth, sanitation, or medical care.

CBP claims that people held in the camps are not in the agency’s custody, absolving it of any responsibility to provide them with basic necessities for survival. Yet witnesses and humanitarian aid groups have reported that CBP itself has transported migrants to these sites, where agents closely monitor detainees and restrict their movements. CBP officers have reportedly informed migrants that they cannot leave the detention sites, threatening to arrest and deport them if they do.

Humanitarian aid groups, including Al Otro Lado, have stepped up to provide food, medical aid, tents, and other basic necessities to migrants forced to wait in the detention sites. However, conditions continue to deteriorate, groups are running low on funds, and lack of transparency around CBP’s policies and practices has made it even more difficult to deliver aid.

Migrants, service providers, journalists, and concerned Members of Congress have repeatedly requested information regarding CBP’s practices at the detention sites. In October 2023, Al Otro Lado submitted a FOIA request, seeking information regarding CBP’s activities at the detention sites in Jacumba, California. In December, Al Otro Lado and CGRS filed a second FOIA request for information on CBP’s activities at all detention sites in the agency’s San Diego Sector. To date, CBP has failed to produce the information requested, in violation of its statutory obligations under the FOIA.

“It is unconscionable that the Department of Homeland Security, an agency with a multi-billion dollar annual budget, would deprioritize the humane treatment of migrants to such an extent that those seeking safety at our borders are not provided with the basic items they need to survive,” said Erika Pinheiro, Al Otro Lado’s executive director. “Trapping human beings in squalid camps without access to food, water, and medical care contravenes our laws and morals, and we deserve to know why the U.S. government is deploying our tax dollars in a way that threatens the lives of the most vulnerable.” 

“People held in CBP’s open air detention sites have suffered grave human rights violations,” said Edith Sangüeza, Staff Attorney at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS). “Desperate families, children, and adults have been trapped in perilous conditions, left without protection from the elements and vulnerable to illness. CBP’s callous disregard for the safety of migrants in its custody has already resulted in at least three deaths. The agency cannot keep sidestepping accountability. People seeking safety deserve answers, as do the humanitarian aid groups that have stepped in where the government has failed to protect lives.”