The U.S. Federal Building at 300 N. Los Angeles Street is one of downtown's uglier edifices — a gray, Brezhnevian block of barricaded concrete that houses a host of government bureaucracies, including the U.S. immigration courts. Visitors entering the lobby little suspect, however, that just below the terrazzo floor at their feet lie six holding rooms of human misery. According to the American Civil Liberties and National

Immigration Law Center, the rooms, known collectively as B-18, have become overcrowded pens containing immigrants caught in a no-man's land that's both literal and figurative. On one level, many are stuck in a legal limbo regarding their right to remain in America; on a more visceral level, they are physically trapped in a system that will not provide a way for incarcerating them in one place, nor allows them to remain at large until their cases are settled.

Karen Tumlin, left, and two former B-18 detainees
Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP

“They can't figure out where to send them and it becomes a human shell game,” says ACLU spokesman Gordon Smith. “We have nothing against B-18 being used for its original purpose — as a facility where people aren't held for more than 12 hours.”

On Thursday the ACLU and NILC filed a lawsuit against the Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, Attorney General Eric Holder and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

The rooms have been in use for 20 years and were designed in a different era, before the explosive influx of immigrants began in earnest, and before 9/11 ramped up Federal security fears. The cells were designed to hold a limit of 50 people for no longer than 12-hour stretches. Today, however, there are usually between 50 and 60 people in them – but sometimes, more than 100.

The rooms, segregated accorded to sex, have no beds or showers, and consist of benches spread along the walls, with each room containing a sink and two jail-style open toilets. The problem is that ICE has no dedicated holding facility anywhere near Los Angeles and the government doesn't know what to do with the immigrants who haven't been brought before a judge upstairs by day's end. ICE won't release them on the street, so the government often keeps the detainees in the basement holding rooms for 20 hours. After that ICE may load them into minivans headed for a local jail, such as the L.A. County lockup downtown, or city jails in Glendale or Pasadena. Sometimes, they're sent to more distant, sheriff-run detention centers in Lancaster or Santa Ana.

When they arrive at a local jail, if they're lucky, the immigrants can take a shower and maybe get some sleep on the floor. However, they are not given a change of clothes – and cannot receive clean underwear or clothes from relatives or attorneys — not to mention toothbrushes, pens and paper. This creates unsanitary environments in B-18's cells, where there is no soap for the sinks for people who may have been wearing the same clothes for three weeks. Worse, women are seldom, if ever given sanitary napkins when needed. Sinks often double as urinals in a room in which government-supplied food is consumed. And, when the cells sometimes fill up with 100 detainees, there is not even space on the floor to sit. It's not uncommon for fights to break out in this supercharge atmosphere.

“They're overcrowded,” NILC attorney Karen Tumlin say. “There's no sitting room and an outright refusal of sanitary napkins to menstruating women.”

Needless to say, the detainees have no access to sunlight, recreation, mail, visitors or phone calls. ICE is not responding to media questions about B-18 or the lawsuit, but ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice did direct the L.A. Weekly to ICE bulletins that describe the kind of non-detention options it employs, which include as call-in systems and monitoring ankle bracelets. A statement issued by ICE Thursday suggests the agency may be seriously re-evaluating its detention policy.

LA Weekly