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DHS watchdog details dangerous conditions for migrants at border centers

Report finds most detainees being held for longer than allowed limit

Overcrowding of families at a facility in McAllen, Texas, on June 10, as observed by the Office of the Inspector General. (Courtesy Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General)
Overcrowding of families at a facility in McAllen, Texas, on June 10, as observed by the Office of the Inspector General. (Courtesy Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General)

Migrants “banged on cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window,” desperately trying to signal to inspectors how long they’d been detained at Customs and Border Protection facilities. At one processing center, a senior manager called the situation a “ticking time bomb.”

Full of shocking photographs, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General report published Tuesday details dangerously overcrowded and unhygienic conditions at five processing centers in Texas where CBP detained migrants, including thousands of young children, for long periods of time.

The report marks the latest revelation in recent days of the situation at the U.S. southern border that has included House Democrats describing harsh conditions and an uncooperative atmosphere with CBP agents at facilities they toured, as well as a report on a private Facebook group filled with racist and sexist posts by current and former CBP agents.

The developments prompted Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, to call on acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan and acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan to testify before Congress on July 12.

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“The Trump administration’s actions at the southern border are grotesque and dehumanizing,” Cummings said in a statement Tuesday. “There seems to be open contempt for the rule of law and for basic human decency.”

In the latest OIG report, the government watchdog found CBP held 8,000 detainees at the time that inspectors visited the five facilities in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas in June. Almost half had been detained for longer than the allowed 72-hour limit, and about 1,500 had been in custody for more than 10 days.

The report found “at risk” populations — children and families — were also being held at the facilities for much longer than allowed. According to CBP data cited in the report, 31 percent of the 2,669 children held at the facilities at the time had been there for longer than 72 hours.

Inspectors found detainees often had no access to showers or a change of clothes. While all facilities supplied infant formulas, diapers, baby wipes, and juice and snacks for the children, two facilities did not provide hot meals to the kids — violating standards.

The circumstances were so dire at one facility that some single adults were being held in standing room only conditions for more than a month. In some cases, Border Patrol agents had been handing out wet wipes to the detainees for personal hygiene. For food, detainees had only been getting bologna sandwiches, which made some of them so sick that they required medical attention, the report noted.

The desperate conditions had already led to “security incidents among adult males at multiple facilities,” by the time of the visit. In one case, detainees clogged toilets with Mylar blankets and socks so they could be released.

In another, individuals who had left their cell while it was being cleaned refused to return. Some detainees at one of the facilities even tried to escape. “Border Patrol brought in its special operations team to demonstrate it was prepared to use force if necessary,” the report noted.

In response to the findings, DHS called the situation at the southern border “an acute and worsening crisis” and said it had taken measures to make more room by setting up temporary shelters that would hold more people.

The ACLU of Texas and the ACLU Border Rights Center, which filed complaints that led to the OIG investigation, criticized the inhumane conditions detailed in the report.

“Every human being is deserving of dignity and respect, without exception,” Rochelle Garza, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement. “Congress must hold DHS accountable and ensure that the urgent problems outlined in the OIG report are fixed immediately.”

Calls for greater oversight

The report follows weeks of growing calls for greater accountability for the care of migrants at the facilities, amid negotiations for a supplemental spending bill for emergency border aid, which President Donald Trump signed Monday.

The House ultimately passed the Senate version of the bill, which provided some safeguards for migrants in detention but did not go as far as many progressives wanted.

Late Monday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to Trump reiterating Democrats’ concerns and asking for provisions — some of which were left out of the supplemental bill — that ensure better oversight.

In response to the OIG report, Pelosi on Tuesday again highlighted the House bill, as well as lawmakers who “witnessed horrifying conditions and faced disrespect” on tours of detention facilities. She called the investigation “even more troubling” in light of a report that detailed sexist and racist comments by CBP agents on Facebook.

“The inspector general’s report provides a shocking window into the dangerous and dehumanizing conditions that the Trump administration is inflicting on children and families at the border,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “Every day that goes by, we have even greater cause for concern and urgency to enact the protections for children and families that were part of the House-passed border supplemental bill.”

House Democrats who toured CBP facilities in Texas on Monday decried the conditions they observed amid angry protesters, railing both for and against immigrants rights.

The exchange between some members of Congress and agents grew heated after the lawmakers brought up a ProPublica investigation that revealed the existence of a Facebook group where former and current Border Patrol agents posted sexually and physically violent messages about female members of Congress, and jokes about migrant deaths.

The treatment of migrants held by the government has generated public outrage following other recent reports, including an OIG report from May that mentioned similar issues. An Associated Press report also relayed accounts of a facility in Clint, Texas, where older children were left in charge of younger ones, children were so tired that they would fall asleep in their chairs, and many were sick.

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