cbp detainees Overcrowding of families observed by OIG on June 10, 2019, at Border Patrol’s McAllen, TX, Station. (DHS OIG photo)

OIG: DHS Faces Future Migrant Surge Challenges Unless it Acts on Lessons Learned

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently undertook an evaluation to identify issues that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) faced complying with the requirement to hold detainees in its custody for no longer than 72 hours during the 2019 migrant surge. 

The watchdog determined that a key issue preventing CBP from transferring detainees out of its facilities within 72 hours was insufficient Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Enforcement and Removal Operations’ (ICE ERO) bed space. ICE ERO also could not increase capacity quickly enough to keep pace with CBP’s apprehensions, and available bed space was not always appropriate for the aliens in need of placement. As a result, CBP’s Border Patrol faced rapidly increasing numbers of detainees — especially single adults — who remained in CBP’s holding facilities intended for short-term custody. 

Despite worsening conditions, OIG found Border Patrol generally did not exercise its authority to release single adults from its custody. Border Patrol sectors created ad-hoc solutions to manage the growing detainee populations in its facilities, because their local response plans did not adequately account for ICE ERO’s detention limitations. Longstanding fragmentation in immigration enforcement operations between CBP and ICE ERO further exacerbated these challenges. 

The review found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was aware of a potential land migration surge and the challenges it would pose. DHS had both a multicomponent task force in place at the border and a plan for land migration surges, but used neither during the 2019 surge. In May 2019, DHS created a headquarters coordination group to advise leadership and help manage future emergencies, like a migrant surge. However, OIG says if the Department does not develop a DHS-wide framework for surges and address day-to-day fragmentation, CBP and ICE ERO will face the same challenges in future surges. 

History may already be repeating, according to an internal DHS document leaked to Axios, which shows that 823 unaccompanied migrant children have been held in border patrol custody for over 10 days — more than a fourfold increase over the past week. The document also shows that as of March 20, 3,314 unaccompanied children had been in custody longer than 72 hours, with 2,226 for more than five days.

The increase is being driven by a number of factors including a change in political rhetoric and policy, the COVID-19 pandemic, and devastating hurricanes in Central America.

A Biden administration official told Axios that “officials are working around the clock to transfer children to Department of Health and Human Services shelters or the homes of vetted relatives or sponsors”.

And on March 22, Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson said that the agency has signed a short-term contract with the nonprofit division of Endeavors “to provide temporary shelter and processing services for families who have not been expelled and are therefore placed in immigration proceedings for their removal from the United States.” Johnson said the $86.9 million contract provides 1,239 beds and other necessary services.

Last week, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Congress that if trends continue, we could be in for “the largest numbers we have seen in 20 years” at the southern border.

The migrant increase is in stark contrast to the situation at the European Union’s borders, where the number of irregular crossings has fallen by 40% in the first two months of 2021. 

In order to meet the challenge and protect the borders while providing humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, OIG says DHS must mature past individual agreements and relationships created to accommodate systemic fragmentation, and truly approach its border mission as “one DHS.” 

The watchdog has made six recommendations following its review:

  • Create a comprehensive surge detention capacity contingency plan that considers Customs and Border Protection apprehension levels, and ensure a process exists for its implementation during future surges. 
  • Standardize documentation required in alien files that Customs and Border Protection needs to include for transfer of aliens from Customs and Border Protection to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Enforcement and Removal Operations custody that will apply to all field offices. 
  • Identify strategies and solutions Customs and Border Protection’s Border Patrol sectors and Office of Field Operations field offices used during the 2019 surge to manage delays in detainee transfers to partner agencies, determine the best practices that can be implemented during future surges, and communicate these best practices across the organization, and ensure a process exists for their implementation during future surges. 
  • Conduct an inventory of infrastructure enhancements acquired during the 2019 surge and incorporate these into planning and staging for future migrant surges. 
  • Provide guidance to Border Patrol sectors to incorporate Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Enforcement and Removal Operations and Health and Human Services capacity in risk assessments for future migrant surge planning. 
  • Ensure Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement establish, draft, and coordinate thresholds, in consultation with the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans with approval from the Secretary, for when DHS will request a whole-of-government approach to address transportation, case processing, and detention gaps during migrant surges. 

DHS concurred with all six recommendations and plans to implement the majority by the end of the year.

Read the full report at OIG

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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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