Immigrant rights groups demand accountability for 'gross violations of human rights' at open-air detention sites at U.S.-Mexico border

Layne Mullett
Director of Media Relations


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Federal Complaint details dangerous conditions for asylum seekers forcefully held outdoors without adequate food, water, or medical care

JACUMBA, CA – Seven immigrant rights organizations lodged an urgent federal complaint this week against the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for violating their own custody standards for asylum seekers held in open-air detention sites along the U.S.-Mexico border in California. For several months, Border Patrol officers have forced asylum seekers to wait outdoors for several hours or days between sections of the San Diego border walls and other open-air sites in the Jacumba desert. Asylum seekers are not allowed to leave and don’t have adequate access to water, food, sanitation, medical care, or protection from the elements.

The 88-page complaint was filed by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS), International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), and National Immigration Law Center (NILC) on behalf of Al Otro Lado, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Border Kindness, and Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC). This is a second federal complaint filed against the CRCL for violations of human rights for its practices at the open-air detention sites, following a complaint filed by SBCC on May 13, 2023, shortly after the violations were first documented. However, the inhumane conditions at the open-air detention sites have not changed and are spreading to other sites along the southern border.

In the subsequent months, at least one person has tragically died while trapped in an open-air detention site, and conditions are expected to deteriorate as winter weather intensifies, further endangering those exposed to the elements.

“It is galling that the Department of Homeland Security claims that their ‘lack of resources’ compels them to hold vulnerable refugees in open-air prisons without food, water, shelter, adequate sanitation facilities, or medical care,” said Erika Pinheiro, Executive Director of Al Otro Lado. “DHS’ 2023 budget is almost $170 billion, yet it forces overstretched nonprofits, mutual aid groups, and dedicated volunteers to provide the basics that migrants need to survive in its open-air detention sites. Holding refugees in these inhumane conditions is a deliberate choice that contradicts the United States’ self-proclaimed position as a bastion of freedom and human rights.”

“It is unconscionable that Border Patrol agents force asylum-seeking migrants to wait for hours and days in dangerous conditions,” said Pedro Rios, Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program. “In San Diego, one person in a medically vulnerable state has already died at an open-air detention site. Community members and human rights organizations have been left to provide basic care, including food and water, to thousands seeking shelter and asylum in the United States.”

"For months, some of the world’s most vulnerable people have arrived to the border in search of safety, and have instead been detained outdoors in life threatening conditions,” said Jacqueline Arellano, Director of USA Programs for Border Kindness. “Border Patrol is reacting with deliberate negligence, and in their refusal to provide for the basic needs of those in their detention, have risked thousands of lives by misdirecting their responsibilities to the community. The practice of Open Air Detention must be acknowledged and discontinued immediately to end this mass suffering and before there is further loss of life."

“CBP’s open-air detention sites endanger vulnerable families, children, and adults seeking safety,” said Edith Sangüeza, CGRS Staff Attorney. “No one should be forced to endure such deplorable conditions as a consequence of exercising their rights. The government must act swiftly to protect lives. And it can. Much suffering could be alleviated if the government stopped illegally turning away asylum seekers without a CBP One appointment at ports of entry, leaving them no option but to take a dangerous path through the desert.”

“There is simply no excuse for this shocking and inhumane treatment of people seeking safety,” said Linda Evarts, IRAP Senior Supervising Attorney. “Border Patrol is blatantly violating its own detention standards and endangering the lives of people in need. We demand that CBP treat people with the dignity and care they deserve.”

“This is another example of CBP’s egregious mistreatment of people seeking safety. And it must be corrected immediately,” said Sarah Kim Pak, Staff Attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “At NILC, we’ve taken CBP to court before for holding people in deplorable, unconstitutional conditions. We demand that the agency abide by its own standards and its obligations under law to provide people with basic necessities.”

“Once again, Customs and Border Protection is sidestepping accountability for not abiding by their own custody standards for asylum seekers, which not only undermines trust in the agency but the entire U.S. immigration system,” said Lilian Serrano, Director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. ”CBP has a responsibility to protect human rights and dignity for all, yet their practice of forcing asylum seekers to remain outdoors in remote open-air detention sites says otherwise. Exposing migrants to the elements in the middle of winter with no food or water for days is beyond inhumane – it’s appalling, and CBP must end this now.”

Additional Materials

  • Read the federal CRCL complaint: HERE
  • Read SBCC’s May 2023 CRCL complaint: HERE
  • Take action with Al Otro Lado and #WelcomeWithDignity’s social media toolkit: HERE


The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) promotes a world free of violence, inequality, and oppression. Guided by the Quaker belief in the divine light within each person, we nurture the seeds of change and the respect for human life to fundamentally transform our societies and institutions.