As part of the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) annual, congressionally mandated oversight of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) holding facilities, the watchdog conducted unannounced inspections of 21 facilities to evaluate CBP’s compliance with applicable detention standards.
CBP is responsible for providing short-term detention for aliens arriving in the United States without valid travel documents, in compliance with the National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search. During fiscal year 2019, there was a surge in Southwest Border crossings between ports of entry, resulting in 851,508 Border Patrol apprehensions and contributing to what senior CBP officials described as an “unprecedented border security and humanitarian crisis.”
The unannounced inspections revealed that under these challenging circumstances, CBP struggled to meet detention standards. OIG’s June 12 capping report, which supplements two Management Alerts published last year about issues requiring DHS’ immediate attention, summarizes observations of the 21 Border Patrol facilities and CBP ports of entry that OIG inspected in 2019.
OIG found that several Border Patrol stations exceeded their maximum capacity. Although Border Patrol established temporary holding facilities to alleviate overcrowding, OIG said it struggled to limit detention to the 72 hours generally permitted, as options for transferring detainees out of CBP custody to long-term facilities were limited.
In addition, even after deploying medical professionals to more efficiently provide access to medical care, overcrowding made it difficult for the Border Patrol to manage contagious illnesses. In some locations, OIG found that Border Patrol did not meet certain standards for detainee care, such as offering children access to telephone calls and safeguarding detainee property. In contrast to Border Patrol, which could not control apprehensions, CBP’s ports of entry could limit detainee access, and generally met applicable detention standards.
In a May 2019 Management Alert, OIG made a recommendation to CBP to address overcrowding and prolonged detention at a particular Border Patrol station in El Paso. In November 2019, OIG’s Office of Audits made recommendations to improve DHS information technology systems. The June 12 report adds two further recommendations – that the Acting Commissioner of CBP establish procedures for evaluating compliance with requirements to provide and document phone calls for unaccompanied alien children (UACs) in custody; and implement consistent guidance on how CBP handles detainee personal property.
In response, CBP concurred with the two new recommendations and reiterated the unprecedented conditions of the migrant surge in late 2018 and early 2019. CBP stated it took steps to ensure an elevated standard of care to detainees. CBP also stated it took measures to lessen the impact of overcrowding by procuring temporary facilities, detailing agents from other sectors to assist the burdened sectors, and identifying additional resources for continued humanitarian efforts. CBP stated that, while it cannot control the flow of migrants, it had taken steps to enhance its response to surge conditions. CBP also stated it relies on the ability of its partners and supporting agencies to transfer detainees from CBP custody within 72 hours.
CBP noted that information related to UACs, including custodial actions, notifications, and transport, should be documented in the Border Patrol’s data system. The Border Patrol will review and assess current guidance regarding documenting and tracking of UAC in-custody phone calls, and determine whether additional information needs to be documented. The Border Patrol will then review whether system enhancements are required, and will issue additional guidance. CBP estimates completion by December 31, 2020.
In addition, Border Patrol will establish a working group to discuss best practices and enhancements to the way it currently tracks and maintains detainee personal property. The working group will identify best practices, and the Border Patrol will issue implementation guidance. Completion is also expected by December 31, 2020.