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Watchdog urges removal of ICE detainees amid ‘safety risks’

Mold, clogged toilets and other problems found at a New Mexico center holding migrants

U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicles sit in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border in August 2019.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicles sit in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Texas border in August 2019. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A Department of Homeland Security watchdog office recommended the immediate relocation of all immigrant detainees at the Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico after uncovering “safety risks and unsanitary living conditions” there.

The inspector general’s office, which conducted an unannounced inspection in February of the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facility, found that detainees were exposed to “excessive and avoidable unsanitary conditions,” including clogged toilets, mold and water leaks, and missing hot water buttons.

Issues resulted from critical staffing shortages, inspectors found: at the time of the inspection, Torrance had 133 full-time employees out of 245 required, or 54 percent.

“Torrance cannot keep up with the contractual requirements needed to safely and properly maintain the facility,” the report said. “We recommend the immediate relocation of all detainees from the facility unless and until the facility ensures adequate staffing and appropriate living conditions.

At the time of the in-person inspections at Torrance, from Feb. 1-3, the facility had 176 male ICE detainees.

The report, made public Friday, also found that Torrance officers did not properly supervise and monitor detainees, with one interviewed immigrant reporting he felt he would be unable to get the attention of staff if an emergency occurred.

Jason Houser, ICE’s acting chief of staff, said in a memo responding to the inspector general that the agency is “fiercely committed to ensuring that noncitizens in its custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments.”

But he contested the inspector general’s findings, citing “serious concerns about the accuracy and integrity” of the report and accusing investigators of ignoring facts in order to reach “preconceived conclusions.”

The agency alleged, for example, that inspectors did not wait after turning on faucets to determine if they produce hot water, which can take time to warm.

The report drew immediate condemnation from immigrant advocates, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee immigration subpanel.

“I’m alarmed conditions became this unsafe, unsanitary, & unfit for humans,” she tweeted. “This cannot be overlooked.”

The inspector general report is the latest in a string of findings that advocates say call into question ICE’s ability to safely house detainees. Last year, numerous federal reports highlighted pandemic-related health and safety issues in detention facilities, including subpar viral mitigation measures and lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment.

The fiscal 2022 government spending law signed earlier this week (PL 117-103) increased funding for the agency. Lawmakers provided $8.26 billion to ICE, a $284.7 million increase over the amount enacted in fiscal 2021. That includes $4.18 billion for ICE’s enforcement and removal operations unit, which oversees immigration arrests, detention and deportations, a $56.9 million increase from last year. 

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