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Key findings from watchdog report on border detention centers

An internal report describing dismal conditions at detention centers holding migrants at the border is stirring tensions between the Trump administration and Congress over Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) handling of the growing crisis.


The report from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) showed little progress in conditions at the centers run by Border Patrol and CBP, its parent agency.

The report described standing room only cells for migrants, who were not fed hot meals or given showers.

The centers also continue to hold children, some of whom are showing up at the border unattended.

Here are five critical findings from the report.

The centers are grossly overcrowded

OIG investigators visited five Border Patrol facilities and two ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

The report said they observed “serious overcrowding and prolonged detention” of children, families and single adults that required immediate attention.

The Border Patrol was holding about 8,000 detainees at the time of the visit, including 3,400 who had been held longer than CBP’s allowable standards. It said 1,500 had been held for more than 10 days.

In response to the findings, Department of Homeland Security officials said they had added detention space in the Rio Grande Valley. They said the number of detained unaccompanied children had been reduced from nearly 2,800 in early June to less than 1,000 on June 25.

But the OIG said it remained concerned DHS was not taking enough steps.

CBP has nowhere to send most detainees

Most of those being held at the centers are Central American migrants who traveled as family units and turned themselves over to Border Patrol to request asylum in the United States.

While seeking asylum in the United States is not illegal, crossing the border without prior authorization and between ports of entry is a misdemeanor, or a felony if attempted more than once.

Previous administrations would release people seeking asylum to await trial, but the Trump administration has mostly ended that practice.

That means CBP must turn over people to be held for long periods of time to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or to the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) if they are minors.

Yet those two agencies also do not have enough space, the OIG report said.

“Currently, because both ICE and HHS are operating at or above capacity,” the report reads. As a result, it said CBP was seeing an increase in prolonged detention in its facilities.

“During the week of our visits, ICE had approximately 54,000 beds occupied nationwide, but was only funded for 42,000 beds,” added the investigators.

Overcrowding is putting both detainees and agents at risk

Detainees at CBP and Border Patrol facilities have been subjected to poor hygiene, standing room for days on end, bologna sandwiches as the only source of nourishment and other substandard conditions.

According to the report, one senior manager at a reviewed facility called the situation a “ticking time bomb.”

The report shows that many detainees are losing patience with their conditions, and are recurring to more and more extreme methods to protest or simply get fresh air.

Border Patrol management reported security incidents in “multiple facilities” to the investigators, including clogging up toilets in detention cells to get time outside while maintenance work was executed.

OIG reported detainees banging on windows as inspectors walked by, pointing to the length of their beards to show how long they'd been in detention.

“We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained,” reads the report.

It follows up on an earlier, similar report

On May 30, the DHS Office of Inspector General issued a report on “dangerous overcrowding” in the El Paso area after a series of unannounced visits to shelters there.

The July 2 report shows the first report's recommendations were not carried out.

“During the week of June 10, 2019, we traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and again observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention in Border Patrol facilities requiring immediate attention,” reads the July 2 report.

Conditions are likely to improve, at least temporarily

The OIG report was released as political pressure hit a boiling point — including a tense visit by Democratic lawmakers to facilities in El Paso.

Congress last week approved a $4.6 billion emergency border funding bill that was signed into law by President Trump. It ensures that CBP, ICE and ORR will have more resources to throw at the problem.

But perhaps the most important factor in reducing overcrowding is a 28 percent reduction in border apprehensions from May to June.

Illegal border crossing attempts usually decrease in the hotter months of the year, but this year's plunge — driven by a 32 percent reduction in attempts by family units and a 37 percent reduction in unaccompanied children —is much more significant than in previous years.

While migration experts had predicted the hotter weather was less likely to have an effect on migration patterns this year, an agreement with Mexico to increase enforcement there and augment the migrant protection protocols (MPP) program seems to have had an immediate effect.

Under MPP, Central American asylum-seekers are returned to Mexico to wait out their U.S. immigration court proceedings.

Mexico's National Migration Institute deported nearly 22,000 Central Americans in June, a 33 percent increase from May and a similar figure to the roughly 27,000-person reduction in Central American family unit apprehensions in the United States over the same period.

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