HOUSTON (AP) — In early June, twin brothers from Guatemala let their sister in California know they were about to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Then they vanished for almost a month.
She couldn’t find them in online databases and the local Guatemalan consulate had no information. She feared they had been kidnapped or killed.
It took three weeks to find them: inside jam-packed U.S. Border Patrol cells in South Texas, with no access to phones or lawyers. One of them was inside the fenced-in pens that Vice President Mike Pence visited in July. Only after the lawyers sued were both brothers transferred out.
It’s a pattern that immigration lawyers say has repeated itself for several weeks: Adults are detained in packed Border Patrol cells — malnourished, poorly treated and incommunicado — only to be moved within hours once the government is sued on their behalf.
One group of lawyers has filed lawsuits on behalf of the spouses, siblings and relatives of 18 migrants — all of whom were removed from their cells almost immediately.
The lawyers believe the government is trying to avoid a federal judge issuing a sweeping order that would require the release of potentially thousands of people detained by the Border Patrol or changes to improve the conditions in cells that government inspectors and advocates have said are squalid.
“They know they’re wrong and the court’s certainly going to come down on them because of the conditions,” said Thelma Garcia, a South Texas attorney. “It’s a losing battle for them in that regard.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to answer questions about the brothers’ cases or others due to the pending litigation.
Under its own guidelines, the Border Patrol has 72 hours to detain adults before turning them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE facilities have phones and places for legal visits, and detainees in its system can be found with an online search.
Those systems often don’t exist in Border Patrol custody.
The government is routinely keeping immigrants beyond the 72-hour limit at a time when border authorities are overwhelmed with a surge of migrants from Central America. About 10,000 people were in Border Patrol custody as of last week, with about 4,200 in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where many migrants remain detained in fenced-in pens and tents.
Reports inside and outside the government depict a disorganized system of facilities where migrants are denied enough food, medical care and legal access. The Border Patrol also wrongfully detained an American-born 18-year-old who said he was held for three weeks and lost 26 pounds inside.
Garcia and other attorneys allege the agency is trying to avoid being forced to improve conditions and, in some cases, has obscured the reality inside.
Pence visited the McAllen station July 12, accompanied by Republican senators and the news media. Images of him watching crowds of shouting men behind fences and reports of the smell inside the station were widely shared.
One of the migrants detained by Border Patrol during that visit was later transferred out after a lawsuit. His name is being withheld because he has a pending asylum case. According to a sworn statement provided by his lawyers, he said he received only two baths in 47 days detained by the Border Patrol. The second bath he received was prior to Pence’s visit.
“On that day, we were all bathed,” he said. “We were given better food, normally reserved for women and children, which included three slices of ham, wheat bread, lettuce, potato chips, an apple and a bottle of water.”
CBP did not address the detainee’s allegations but said that if anyone received a shower before the visit, it would have been coincidental.
On other days, according to former detainees, they only received a biscuit for some meals. Some weren’t allowed to brush their teeth or were denied medical care they requested.
The same detainee who said he only received two baths said he contracted chickenpox in McAllen. He says he asked to see a doctor and was denied but was then transferred to a Border Patrol station where everyone around him was sick.
“There were sick women and children there,” he said in the affidavit. “A young child with flu-infected many of us. The child was stripped naked, at one point, where he remained in the freezing temperatures, to alleviate the child’s high fever.”
And they had no access to the outside — no phones or meetings with lawyers.
Lisa Brodyaga, another attorney involved in suing the government, said lawyers receive daily calls from people who can’t find relatives they know to have crossed the border.
Other immigrants included in one lawsuit she filed included a 44-year-old man from El Salvador who was apprehended May 30, and a 21-year-old man known to have left El Salvador on May 9 and who had crossed the border without a trace.
The lawsuit was filed July 20. By July 21, all five people in the lawsuit had been transferred into ICE custody.
Before they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, the Guatemalan brothers — Carlos and Juan — got word to their sister Ruth, who lives in Los Angeles and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Both men crossed without authorization.
After no word from them for several days, Ruth says she started calling other family members and the local consulate in Los Angeles. Eventually, a consulate in Texas confirmed it had gotten word that the two men were detained. But it was unclear where they were or what condition they were in.
Carlos and Juan, both 29, were police officers in Guatemala who fled after refusing to work for gangs threatening their lives. The brothers asked not to be identified by their family’s last name because they feared retribution if forced to return to Guatemala.
When they crossed the border, Juan and Carlos were taken by smugglers to a house in McAllen that authorities later found. The men then were taken into Border Patrol custody.
Juan says he was taken back and forth between Border Patrol stations in McAllen and Rio Grande City. In roughly two weeks at the McAllen station, he was never given a toothbrush or allowed to shower. Once, he says, he fainted and had to be taken to a clinic with an abnormally fast heart rate.
He and Carlos were separated. Carlos described his despair at not knowing where his brother was or being able to speak to his family.
“There were times I cried and said to myself, ‘I fled there only to end up like this,’” he said.
The brothers are now in separate ICE jails in South Texas and New Mexico.
Ruth has spoken to both, saying her prayers were answered.
“I just prayed, ‘Don’t give me bad news,’” she said. “I always asked God to take care of them, and there they are.”