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OIG: Border Patrol Improving Detainee Conditions While Struggling With Overcrowded Facilities

An investigation by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found that detention facilities have struggled with overcrowded holding rooms but that U.S. Border Patrol has implemented initiatives to handle challenges.

OIG conducted unannounced inspections at six locations in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas in July 2021 to evaluate U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) compliance with detention standards. 

OIG did not observe cells so overcrowded that detainees were not able to sit or lie down, except at one facility which “held nearly double its designated normal capacity”. 

The watchdog also found that some single adults and some families had been in detention longer than 72 hours. Of the 3,610 detainees held in the Border Patrol facilities OIG visited, 270 (7 percent) were held longer than 72 hours. CBP reported that limited U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) detention space was a factor in prolonged detention. 

Although noncitizen unaccompanied children (NUC) were held in crowded conditions, OIG found CBP met all other National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search (TEDS) for NUCs at the time of the site visit, at the facility inspected. OIG said that CBP also met standards at an Office of Field Operations port of entry that the inspectors visited. 

“During our site visits, we observed that Border Patrol had taken measures to address the challenges of prolonged detention, including providing access to showers, changes of clothing, hot meals, and fresh fruit,” OIG states in its report. “With a high volume of apprehended single adults and families, Border Patrol set up a temporary outdoor processing site which did not meet some TEDS standards but lessened overcrowding and health risks for detainees.” 

Back in 2019, OIG’s unannounced inspections of CBP holding facilities identified significant issues, including dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention, at several locations along the Southwest border. Further visits in 2020 recorded some improvements with regards to TEDS standards compliance. However this could have been largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the volume of attempted border crossings. The rate of apprehensions inevitably affects Border Patrol’s ability to meet the TEDS standards on time in custody and overcrowding.

For example, during the July 2021 inspections, when apprehension numbers were higher than in 2020, OIG also found that although Border Patrol had taken measures to improve general health screening and reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, the high volume of apprehensions at the time of the site visit limited the effectiveness of these measures. 

In addition, medical contract staff and Border Patrol officials told OIG that medical screening was not consistent. For example, detainees were not consistently screened when transferred between Border Patrol stations or when transferring out of Border Patrol custody. As a result, medical contract staff said some detainees with COVID-19 symptoms were entering facilities, and some detainees who required medications were not receiving them on schedule. 

The July 2021 inspections found that Border Patrol had introduced processes and procedures to improve case management. For example, Border Patrol had introduced color-coded bracelets to identify detainees as single adults, families, or NUCs. Bar codes on these bracelets enabled Border Patrol to identify each member of a family. The bar codes also enabled Border Patrol to match detainees to their property. Detainees with a medical condition or the need for prescriptions were issued a separate red bracelet to identify their medical needs. Posters displayed in English and Spanish explained the purpose of these bracelets. 

OIG said interdependencies among CBP, ICE, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and other agencies, including the Department of Justice, “limit the Border Patrol’s ability to unilaterally address overcrowding and prolonged detention.” The watchdog said that within these constraints posed by the interdependencies, “the Border Patrol’s adoption of measures to reduce detention time and mitigate health risks among families, and to address some of the challenges related to prolonged detention for families and single adults, demonstrate Border Patrol’s initiative to identify solutions for challenges within its control”.

OIG made no new recommendations as a result of the July 2021 site inspections but noted that the Department of Homeland Security is making “noticeable progress” towards closing some of the recommendations made in the 2019 report.

Read the full report at OIG

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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