US watchdog says migrant centre conditions worse than initially thought

Overcrowding so severe that individuals banged on cells and begged for help

Democrat members of the House of Representatives were met with shouts of protest from pro-Trump demonstrators as they concluded their visit of the Clint Detention Center in El Paso, Texas. Video: Reuters

 

Overcrowded, squalid conditions are more widespread at migrant centres along the southern US border than initially revealed, the department of homeland security’s independent watchdog has said.

Its report, released on Tuesday, describes standing-room-only cells, children without showers and hot meals, and detainees clamouring desperately for release.

The findings by the department of homeland security’s office of Inspector General were released as House Democrats detailed their own findings at migrant holding centres and pressed the agency to answer for the mistreatment not only of migrants but also of their own colleagues, who have been threatened on social media.

In June, inspectors from the department visited five facilities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and found children had few spare clothes and no laundry facilities. Many migrants were given only wet wipes to clean themselves and bologna sandwiches to eat, causing constipation and other health problems, according to the report.

Children at two of the five facilities in the area were not given hot meals until inspectors arrived. Overcrowding was so severe that when the agency’s internal inspectors visited some of the facilities, migrants banged on cells and pressed notes to windows begging for help.

“At one facility, some single adults were held in standing-room-only conditions for a week, and at another, some single adults were held more than a month in overcrowded cells,” according to the report, which built off an initial inquiry by the inspector general in May that described similar conditions in facilities in El Paso, Texas.

The report fuelled Democratic lawmakers’ resolve to press for answers from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency even as they continued to fight among themselves over an emergency spending Bill that passed last week without the strict conditions that liberals and Hispanic members had demanded.

Their sense of urgency was stoked further after ProPublica unearthed a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents that featured jokes about migrant deaths and threats to members of Congress.

‘Vile comments’

“The inspector general’s report provides a shocking window into the dangerous and dehumanising conditions that the Trump administration is inflicting on children and families at the border,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “This report is even more troubling after the discovery of the vile, crude comments made on social media by some of those in CBP responsible for caring for migrant families and children.

A handout photo made available by the US Office of the Inspector General shows overcrowded conditions at the US Border Patrol’s McAllen holding station in McAllen, Texas on June 10th, 2019.
A handout photo made available by the US Office of the Inspector General shows overcrowded conditions at the US Border Patrol’s McAllen holding station in McAllen, Texas on June 10th, 2019.

“The inhumanity at the border is a challenge to the conscience of America,” she added.

After touring a facility in Clint, Texas, where a group of lawyers had reported that children had gone unfed and unwashed, Democratic lawmakers said they had met migrants who were not given fresh water and were forced to drink from toilets.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday, one of the Democrats, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who was the target of some of the more offensive posts in the Facebook group, described Customs and Border Protection as a “rogue agency”.

Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, demanded on Tuesday that the acting secretary of homeland security, Kevin McAleenan, and the newly appointed acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Mark Morgan, come to Capitol Hill to discuss the Facebook group and the allegations in the report.

“There seems to be open contempt for the rule of law and for basic human decency,” Cummings said. “The committee needs to hear directly from the heads of these agencies as soon as possible in light of the almost daily reports of abuse and defiance.”

The House Judiciary and Oversight committees both announced hearings next week into the conditions at detention centres. According to the report, details of which were first reported by BuzzFeed News, 826 of the 2,669 children detained at the facilities were held longer than 72 hours, in violation of a federal court settlement and Customs and Border Protection policy.

‘Ticking time bomb’

Senior managers raised security concerns at the facilities, calling the situation “a ticking time bomb”, according to the report. Images published in the report show crowds of migrants packed into cells pressing their hands onto the windows. One migrant held up a cardboard sign reading, “Help.”

Some migrants clogged their toilets with blankets and socks in order to be released from the crowded cells. When some refused to return, Border Patrol brought in a special operations team “to use force if necessary”. “Additionally, detainees have attempted to escape while removed from their cells during maintenance,” according to the report.

An overcrowded area holding families at a Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center is seen in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas on June 11th. Photograph: Reuters
An overcrowded area holding families at a Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center is seen in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas on June 11th. Photograph: Reuters

While senior department of homeland security officials have for months sounded the alarm over a record number of Central American families crossing the southwestern border, officials in recent weeks have disputed the descriptions of the conditions of detained migrants. McAleenan last week described the allegations at the Clint facility as “unsubstantiated” and called it “clean and well managed”.

But the government’s own report backed up the Democrats’ descriptions. The facilities were built for the short-term stay of adults expected to be quickly deported. Central American children, which under immigration law cannot be immediately deported back to their origin country, are supposed to be moved to facilities managed by the department of health and human services within 72 hours. Single adults are supposed to be moved to facilities built for longer-term detention managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“These are not facilities that are designed to hold people for more than three days,” said Representative Will Hurd of Texas, the only Republican representing a border district. “You shouldn’t be holding anybody in these facilities for more than that.”

But department of homeland security officials have said other facilities are full as well. To deter migration to the border, the department recently threatened to start nationwide raids to deport unauthorised families, which President Donald Trump said will begin after July 4th.

Fines

An ICE spokesman also said Tuesday that the agency was issuing fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars to immigrants in the country illegally who refused to comply with deportation orders. The agency began sending out the notices, with fines up to $799 per day, in December.

On Tuesday, NPR reported that one woman was sent a fine for nearly $500,000.

Among border sectors, the Rio Grande Valley has seen some of the largest surges of migration, according to senior department officials. The agency has built tent camps in the area to hold hundreds of the asylum seekers and this year began flying unprocessed migrants to facilities with more space in San Diego.

But the inspector general’s report questioned whether the department was doing enough for the children. At a news conference on Tuesday, doctors in Texas who care for children released from the facilities said they were surprised more had not died. At least six migrant children have died in federal custody or shortly after they were released since September.

They described children having life-saving medication taken away or released with serious ailments but without any medical records from the time they were detained. One doctor related the story of a young mother who described how hard it was to keep her newborn baby warm while in custody.

“This baby had been given a new onesie and given a plastic blanket, and despite her best efforts, her little newborn’s fingers and toes were still blue,” said Dr Lisa Ayoub-Rodriguez, a paediatrician in El Paso.

Robert Perez, deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, said he was “very confident” his agents were providing fresh water, food and hygiene products to migrants in Border Patrol custody. His agents are overwhelmed, he said, because of a record number of families crossing the border, which has filled facilities built for short-term detention.

“We take any and every allegation of misconduct incredibly seriously,” Perez said on CNN. “And there will be consequences to those who do not adhere to our standards of conduct.” – New York Times