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Immigrant detainees file lawsuit over jail conditions

April 2, 2009 |  7:13 am

Federal authorities are violating immigrant detainees’ constitutional rights by holding them for weeks at a detention facility in downtown Los Angeles that was designed as a short-term processing center, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

The center is “regularly overcrowded, causing violence, safety hazards, and humiliation,” while detainees are denied access to attorneys and courts and are rarely provided drinking water or a change of clothing, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the National Immigration Law Center and the Paul Hastings law firm.

Detainees are held at the center during the day and then shuttled to local jails at night and on weekends, which the suit said “effectively cuts detainees off from contact with the outside world” and deprives them of their basic needs.

“They are detaining people in inhumane conditions, grossly unsanitary and disgusting conditions,” said Marisol Orihuela, a staff attorney at the ACLU. “There are serious violations of due process.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation but issued a statement saying that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had called for a comprehensive review of the nation’s immigration practices and was committed to making “measurable, sustainable progress.”

The department is “committed to providing secure, safe and humane treatment for all of our detainees,” the statement said. “We are continuing to work with other agencies and stakeholders to improve services to those in our custody.”

During a tour of the processing center several months ago, Los Angeles assistant field office director Eric Saldana said the agency was doing its best to keep detainees there for just 12 hours at a time and quickly move them into facilities designed to hold them for longer periods. Sometimes, however, he said,  detainees are kept longer or brought back for several days because of delays in accessing travel documents for deportation or because of limited space at local jails.

“Our goal is to get people out of here as quickly as possible,” Saldana said.

The processing center holds up to 250 detainees. There are six large holding cells surrounding a central area with desks, where the detainees are photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed. Each cell has a phone, a bathroom and a bench around the edge. There are also smaller cells for families or juveniles.

Detainees have access to medical staff and can ask to see a judge, Saldana said. Immigration authorities call the staging area the nerve center because all detainees in the Los Angeles area come there first, whether they are picked up at the airport, in the community, a jail or at a work site. All deportees also pass through the center before being put on flights or buses.

There are four named plaintiffs, but Orihuela said the suit was filed on behalf of hundreds of detainees. One plaintiff, Russian immigrant Alla Suvorova, 25, said that for two weeks, she spent every day at the center and every night at local jails. She did not have a chance to have any physical exercise during that time and was kept in a holding room where the toilet was consistently stopped up.

“It was terrible,” Suvorova said in an interview. “They didn’t give us soap. They didn’t let me change clothes. They were transferring me from one jail to another.”

Suvorova, who is married to a U.S. citizen but overstayed a visa, said she also was not told whether she was eligible for bond. When she was transferred to another facility in Washington state, however, she was released on bond at her first hearing. She is still fighting her case.

Another plaintiff, Mexican immigrant Abelardo Chavez Flores, 52, spent about a month and a half at the center, being taken to local jails most nights but also sleeping on the floor on several occasions. According to the suit, he was held for 18 hours at a time in dirty and overcrowded rooms, denied access to a doctor and prevented from brushing his teeth for two weeks.He also wasn’t given an opportunity to see his legal documents or file an appeal on his immigration case.

The plaintiffs have asked the court to order immigration authorities to set a time limit on detention or comply with detention standards, provide hygienic items, sanitary conditions, adequate sleeping facilities and access to legal materials.

“We just want them to follow the minimum standards guaranteed by the Constitution and the statutory rights the detainees have,” Orihuela said.

-- Anna Gorman