Abelardo Chavez was getting ready for work at his Santa Ana home last September when immigration officials knocked at the door.
They arrested Chavez, a Mexican, for being in the country illegally. Taken from his two U.S.-born teenage children, he was sent to a temporary holding center located underneath a sprawling downtown federal building.
The basement facility, known as B-18, is supposed to hold immigrants for a maximum of 12 hours while they are processed, but Chavez would spend much of the next six weeks there. While incarcerated, he says, he was forced several times to sleep on a dirty floor and denied soap, a change of clothing or access to his attorney and family.
"The conditions at B-18 are inhumane," Chavez, 52, said Thursday. "It's a hell."
Lawsuit alleges deplorable conditions
Chavez, who came to the U.S. in 1970 and works as a landscaper, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Immigration Law Center.
The lawsuit alleges that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials routinely detain immigrants in deplorable conditions, housing 200 or more people at a time in squalor. As many as 100 immigrants are placed in a temporary holding room, the ACLU said.
"The conditions at B-18 are barbaric and unconscionable," ACLU immigrants rights' director Ahilan Arulananthama said. "There's no drinking water except for in a sink next to a toilet, which people have to use without soap."
ICE said in a statement it does not comment on pending litigation, but noted that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called for a comprehensive review of the nation's immigration detention practices.
"ICE and DHS are committed to providing secure, safe and humane treatment for all of our detainees," the statement said.
ACLU lawyers said they did not see any of the conditions described in the lawsuit first-hand. Rather, the ACLU said its findings come after extensive interviews with dozens of immigrants.
Holding facility has no beds
The ACLU said the holding facility has no beds and immigrants are not supposed to be kept there for more than 12 hours at a time. On occasion, immigrants have been kept there for up to 20 hours in a day or forced to sleep on the floor, the lawsuit alleges.
"Basically, we were like animals," said Russian immigrant Alla Suvorova, a plaintiff who spent two weeks in the basement. "I was very scared for my life."
Detainees end up in the basement for a range of reasons. Some are in the country illegally, while others arrived with a visa and overstayed, or are claiming asylum. Some are felons fighting deportation after completing prison terms.
The holding rooms typically contain one or two non-private toilets, one sink and no soap or sanitary products, the ACLU said, and conditions are foul-smelling and dirty.
Attorney: Women denied sanitary supplies
ACLU attorney Marisol Orihuela said sometimes women who are menstruating are denied sanitary supplies and some immigrants were denied access to their medicine.
"The conditions are absolutely horrid and inhumane," Orihuela said.
Aside from being denied basic human needs, the lawsuit alleges detainees' due process rights were violated because the detainees were barred access to pens, papers or legal assistance.
"The detainees at B-18 have been rendered ghosts in a shadow system," said attorney Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center.
Suvorova said she was arrested Dec. 24 for overstaying her tourist visa. She is now free on bail and said she feels optimistic about fighting her deportation but still has nightmares about her stay in B-18.
Chavez was freed after the ACLU took up his case. He continues to fight his deportation.