PHOENIX – A federal judge has said the Border Patrol in Arizona violated court orders by failing to properly preserve surveillance video related to a lawsuit claiming the agency detains migrants in inhumane conditions.
U.S. District Judge David Bury on Monday partially granted a motion to hold the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector in civil contempt over video files it was legally required to provide but were irreparably damaged. The court found that the Border Patrol knew about the corrupted files in June 2016, but it never notified the plaintiffs.
The ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center and the Morrison and Foerster law firm filed the contempt request in January after realizing a month earlier that the files had been corrupted and could not be opened.
The lawsuit originally filed in 2015 claims that the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which comprises most of Arizona, holds migrants in extremely filthy and cold cells.
Migrants and advocates call the holding cells “hieleras,” the Spanish word for “freezers.”
Bury said in his order that the Tucson Sector “egregiously” appeared to know the extent of gaps in archived videos but failed to let the plaintiffs or the court know.
He denied the plaintiff’s request to appoint a third party to work with the Border Patrol on producing the videos but required the agency to turn over a list of missing footage within a week. The government will also have to pay for plaintiffs’ fees spent on technical help to review and attempt to retrieve the corrupted video files.
“This is a good result for us,” said Nora Preciado, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “The court recognizes that this is a pervasive problem in the inability to preserve evidence.”
The latest ruling comes after nearly two years of action against the Tucson Sector.
Bury in 2015 also sanctioned the Border Patrol over its destruction of video evidence, saying the agency’s decision to do so was “at best, negligent and was certainly willful.”
He issued a preliminary injunction in late 2016 requiring the agency to provide clean sleeping mats and thin blankets to migrants held for longer than 12 hours and to allow them to wash or clean themselves. The Border Patrol is expected to appeal that decision.
Preciado said the agency has complied with some of those requirements but not all. The advocacy groups were considering an appeal, she said.
The Border Patrol does not comment on pending litigation but has defended its practices and said it is committed to the safety, security and welfare of detainees.
The agency has said it provides detained migrants with basic human needs in accordance with its own policies, and that agents provide medical care, warmth, sanitation, food and water, and allows detainees to sleep.
The government fought for months to prevent disclosure of photos from security cameras at the Arizona detention centers.
The photos were eventually released, and they showed men jammed together under a thin thermal blanket and a woman using a concrete floor strewn with trash to change a baby’s diaper. Pictures also showed rusty toilets, dirty toilet paper on the floor and a malfunctioning water fountain.
The lawsuit was originally filed on behalf of three immigrants. It is now a class-action suit.