A group of approximately 127 illegal aliens seeks entry into the U.S. at El Paso Sector on March 7, 2019. (Jaime Rodriguez Sr./CBP)

Crisis at the Border? DHS OIG Warns of Dangerous Overcrowding at Border Facilities

In May 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol leadership jointly testified before Congress that they are experiencing an unprecedented border security and humanitarian crisis along the southwest border.

According to CBP statistics, the number of southwest border migrant apprehensions during the first seven months of FY 2019 has in general already surpassed that of the total apprehensions for each of the previous four fiscal years. At the sector level, El Paso has experienced the sharpest increase in apprehensions when comparing the first seven months of FY 2019 to the same period in FY 2018.

During the week of May 6, 2019, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) within the Department of Homeland Security visited five Border Patrol stations and two ports of entry in the El Paso area, including greater El Paso and eastern New Mexico, as part of unannounced spot inspections of CBP holding facilities. Read OIG’s findings here

OIG reviewed compliance with CBP’s Transport, Escort, Detention and Search (TEDS) standards, which govern CBP’s interaction with detained individuals, and observed dangerous holding conditions at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center (PDT) Border Patrol processing facility, located at the Paso Del Norte Bridge, that require immediate attention. Specifically, OIG is concerned that PDT does not have the capacity to hold the hundreds currently in custody safely, and has held the majority of its detainees longer than the 72 hours generally permitted under the TEDS standards.

According to PDT Border Patrol processing facility staff, the facility’s maximum capacity is 125 detainees. However, on May 7 and 8, 2019, Border Patrol’s custody logs indicated that there were approximately 750 and 900 detainees on site, respectively. TEDS standards provide that “under no circumstances should the maximum [cell] occupancy rate, as set by the fire marshal, be exceeded”

OIG said it observed “dangerous overcrowding” at the facility with single adults held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees. One cell with a maximum capacity of 12 held 76 detainees; another cell with a maximum capacity of 8 held 41 detainees; and a cell with a maximum capacity of 35 held 155 detainees.

Not only are the facility’s cells unable to accommodate the number of detainees currently being held, the need to separate detainees with infectious diseases, such as chicken pox, scabies, and influenza, from each other and from the general population is further exacerbating the issue.

Border Patrol agents told OIG that some of the detainees had been held in standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks, often in soiled clothing for the duration. According to Border Patrol’s custody logs, there were 756 detainees on site when OIG visited PDT on May 7, 2019. Of those, 502 detainees (66 percent) had been held at PDT for longer than 72 hours, with 33 detainees (4 percent) held there for more than two weeks. On May 8, 2019, OIG returned to PDT for another unannounced spot inspection and observed that some family units and adult females had been transferred, but overall numbers were even higher as additional detainees had arrived for processing. According to Border Patrol staff, on May 8, 2019, the total number on site was approximately 900.

During the visits, OIG observed the triage of hundreds of detainees outside in the PDT parking lot. There were approximately 75 people treated for lice, hundreds of family units waiting in a tented area to be processed, and hundreds of detainees in line to surrender their valuables, such as money and phones, to DHS staff.

OIG also observed staff discarding all other detainee property, such as backpacks, suitcases, and handbags, in a nearby dumpster. Border Patrol personnel told OIG that these items might be wet, have bugs, and be muddy, and, therefore, presented a “biohazard”.

Overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also DHS agents and officers. Border Patrol management on site told OIG that there is a high incidence of illness among their staff. Border Patrol management at PDT and other sites also raised concerns about employee morale and that conditions were elevating anxiety and affecting employees’ personal lives. They noted that some employees eligible for retirement had accelerated their retirement dates, while others were considering alternative employment opportunities.

In addition, Border Patrol management on site said there is an ongoing concern that rising tensions among detainees could turn violent. OIG found that staff must enter crowded cells or move large numbers of detainees for meals, medical care, and cell cleaning. For example, at the time of the OIG visit, 140 adult male detainees were crowding the hallways and common areas of the facility while their cell was being cleaned. Staff experienced difficulty maneuvering around this crowd to perform their duties, and feel they have limited options if detainees decide not to cooperate.

OIG says CBP headquarters management has been aware of the situation at PDT for months, yet DHS has not identified a process to alleviate the issues with overcrowding.

Within DHS, providing long-term detention is the responsibility of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), not CBP. El Paso sector Border Patrol management said they are able to complete immigration processing for most detainees within a few days, but have not been able to transfer single adults into ICE custody quickly. Border Patrol managers at the stations OIG visited said they call ICE daily to request detention space for single adults. They said in some instances ICE officers tell them they cannot take the detainees. In other instances, ICE initially agrees to take some adult detainees, but then reverses the decision.

OIG points out that ICE has the infrastructure to transport and detain aliens nationwide, but its current ability to do both of these tasks is also strained. ICE senior managers stated that ICE does not currently have sufficient detention bed space to take all of Border Patrol’s adult detainees, and explained that Border Patrol has the authority to decide which detainees are the highest priority to transfer to ICE custody. ICE managers also stated that ICE prioritizes requests from CBP over any other requests for bed space and, when possible, uses its national transportation system to fly and transport detainees to available detention beds.

When OIG discussed the situation at PDT with ICE, ICE officials suggested the El Paso sector could develop a single point of contact to better prioritize requests for adult detention beds. They said with individual Border Patrol stations making requests to ICE, the highest priority detainees may not be transferred to ICE. Prioritization could alleviate the situation at PDT and in the El Paso sector in the short term, but would not contribute to a coordinated DHS approach to managing long-term detention during this sharp increase in border apprehensions.

Following its visits, OIG recommended immediate action to alleviate the overcrowding at PDT. In response, CBP said it has constructed a 500-person holding capacity soft-sided structure at El Paso Station, and will construct an additional tent by July 31, 2019. Further, it will open a Centralized Processing Center within 18 months. OIG considers these actions to be only “partially responsive” and the recommendation will therefore remain unresolved and open until DHS offers an immediate corrective action plan to address the dangerous overcrowding at PDT.

Last week, President Trump announced new tariffs on Mexico to force it to act on illegal immigration. In a statement issued late Thursday, the president cited his authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and said the crisis at the southern border requires action.

Trump added that unless the Mexican government takes steps to “dramatically reduce or eliminate” the flow of Central American migrants moving through its country, tariffs will go to 15% on August 1, to 20% on Sept. 1, and to 25% on Oct. 1. Tariffs will then permanently remain at the 25 percent level unless and until Mexico substantially stops the illegal inflow of aliens.

Responding to Trump’s tariff announcement, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he hoped scope for cooperation with Guatemala on containing migrant flows from Central America to the United States would improve after the election of the country’s next leader. Guatemala holds presidential elections on June 16 to select a replacement for conservative incumbent Jimmy Morales. Polls suggest that no candidate will secure enough votes to win outright, which would mean the top two contenders face off in a second round in August.

In an effort to help stem the flow of illegal immigrants originating from Guatemala, DHS has signed an agreement with the Northern Triangle country to target human smuggling and trafficking networks.

As Republicans and Democrats continue to debate whether or not there is a crisis at the southern border, police chiefs of America’s largest cities have called on DHS to meet with them as their departments struggle with the influx of immigrants. Some police chiefs said that their communities are overwhelmed with busloads of relocated immigrants and they are concerned about the public safety impact on their citizens.

In a statement, Major Cities Chiefs Association comprising the chiefs and sheriffs of the 69 largest law enforcement agencies in the United States, proposed a roundtable discussion with DHS to clarify and conform DHS immigration policies.

The proposed roundtable would address the current asylum crisis, notably the communication of planned transportation of immigrants; capacity planning for housing, care, feeding, health, and safety of processed immigrants; and identification of detained and transported persons.

The Association also wants to discuss federal policy on Immigration and Customs Enforcement civil detainers for undocumented immigrants, which a number of police departments and jails have refused to recognize.

The statement read:

“We must resolve how federal agencies will operate in our cities and seek a better understanding of the federal government policy for how they will handle these immigrant populations, so that police chiefs can plan for how they will continue to protect all residents.”

The Association also announced the formation of an Immigration Working Group to address the issues.

 

Kylie Bielby has 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. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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