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A new class-action lawsuit alleges that U.S. immigration authorities disregarded signs of unsanitary and unsafe conditions at a detention center in New Mexico to ensure the facility would continue to receive public funding and remain open.
The lawsuit announced Wednesday by a coalition of migrants’ rights advocates was filed on behalf of four Venezuelans ranging in age from 26 to 40 who have sought asylum in the U.S. and say they were denied medical care, access to working showers and adequate food at the Torrance County Detention Facility, all while being pressed into cleaning duties, sometimes without compensation.
The detention center in the rural town of Estancia, about 200 miles from the Mexico border, is contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to accommodate at least 505 adult male migrants at any time, though actual populations fluctuate.
Advocates have repeatedly alleged in recent years that the facility has inadequate living conditions and there is limited access to legal counsel for asylum-seekers who cycle through. They have urged ICE to end its contract with a private detention operator, while calling on state lawmakers to ban local government contracts for migrant detention.
“The point is that ICE can’t turn a blind eye to conditions in detention facilities,” said Mark Feldman, senior attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, which is among those representing the plaintiffs. “They maintain congressionally mandated oversight responsibility over conditions wherever immigrants are detained.”
The detention center failed a performance evaluation in 2021, and the lawsuit alleges that ICE scrambled to avoid documentation of a second consecutive failure that might discontinue federal funding by endorsing a “deeply flawed, lax inspection” by an independent contractor.
The lawsuit says the agency disregarded contradictory findings by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General and a contracting officer at ICE that suggested continued unhealthy conditions and staff shortages.
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Thursday that the agency does not comment on litigation. Last year Chief of Staff Jason Houser said ICE would continuously monitor the facility and noted that it stopped using the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama when expectations there were not met.
CoreCivic, the private operator at Torrance County, said ICE has repeatedly audited the Estancia facility with results that support continued operations.
“We provide a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to us and are constantly striving to deliver an even better standard of care,” spokesperson Ryan Gustin said via email.
As of September about 35,000 migrants were being held in ICE detention facilities across the U.S., while the agency monitors another 195,000 under alternatives to detention as they advance through immigration or removal proceedings, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The southern border region has struggled to cope with increasing numbers of migrants from South America who move quickly through the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama before heading north.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, are also represented by the ACLU, Innovation Law Lab and attorneys for Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.