During unannounced inspections in October 2021 of seven U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities in the El Paso area of West Texas and New Mexico, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that U.S. Border Patrol held 493 migrants in custody longer than specified in the applicable standards, which generally limit detention in these facilities to 72 hours.
In FY 2021, all Southwest border migrant encounters reached a new high of 1,659,206. However, none of the facilities OIG inspected in El Paso were overcrowded. This trend continues in FY 2022, with an approximately 52 percent increase in migrant encounters in the first nine months over the same period in FY 2021.
Border Patrol officials told OIG that they coordinate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Enforcement Removal Operations (ICE ERO) to transfer detainees from Border Patrol’s short-term detention facilities to long-term detention facilities managed by ICE ERO. However, ICE ERO did not have available capacity in these facilities, requiring Border Patrol to hold many of these migrants beyond the 72-hour TEDS standard. In addition, Border Patrol and ICE ERO officials told inspectors that they coordinate to arrange for ICE ERO flights to return detainees to their countries of origin when appropriate. However, ICE ERO flights for some of these detainees were canceled, resulting in the prolonged detention of these migrants in Border Patrol’s El Paso area.
During the October 2021 inspections, OIG observed Border Patrol using an Office of Field Operations (OFO) port of entry to process migrants, a practice that created operational efficiencies but was not sufficiently documented. An OFO official told OIG they should have a formal memorandum of understanding to govern Border Patrol’s use of OFO ports of entry, whereas other officials stated that Border Patrol and OFO are “both CBP” and successfully coordinate their practice of jointly using ports of entry. Therefore, in their view, such documentation is not necessary.
On March 20, 2020, under Title 42 authorities and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order temporarily prohibiting the introduction of certain people from foreign countries traveling from Canada or Mexico, regardless of their countries of origin. Subsequent CDC orders superseded this order and continued the previously established Title 42 expulsions, such as the August 2021 order that included an exemption for unaccompanied children. OIG found that Border Patrol held some migrants placed for expulsion under Title 42 authorities for longer than 14 days, which is inconsistent with Border Patrol policy. OIG found these delays were due to flights being canceled because pilots were not available.
In addition, when Border Patrol expelled migrants under Title 42, agents recorded them in the tracking system as “Not in Custody” despite migrants being placed in custody temporarily prior to being expelled. Border Patrol agents also expressed concerns that “a lack of consequences” from immediate Title 42 expulsions is at least partially leading to increases in recidivism and record numbers of encounters in the El Paso area and along the Southwest border. CBP data indicates that recidivism made up more than a quarter of encounters on the Southwest border in FY 2020 and FY 2021 (26 percent and 27 percent, respectively). In contrast, repeat crossers in FY 2018 and FY 2019, before Title 42 authorities were implemented, were recorded at 11 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
CBP did not meet two other Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search (TEDS) standards. OIG found inconsistent implementation of standards related to segregating juveniles from unrelated adults or legal guardians and providing interpretation to detained individuals. However, the watchdog notes in its report that Border Patrol and OFO took consistent measures in the facilities that were inspected to meet such TEDS standards as providing access to medical care, showers, a change of clothing, blankets and mats, and food and snacks.
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. In fiscal years 2020, 2021, and 2022, Congress mandated that OIG should conduct unannounced inspections of CBP holding facilities. As well as the El Paso area, OIG inspected facilities in the Rio Grande, San Diego, and Yuma areas in 2021, and has been publishing its findings throughout 2022. In these inspections, improvements have been seen across the TEDS standards overall since 2019. Challenges remain, particularly when border crossings are at a high volume, but OIG has noted Border Patrol’s efforts to implement initiatives to deal with overcrowding.
Following its inspections in El Paso, OIG recommended that Border Patrol “identify strategies and solutions to manage delays in detainee transfers to partner agencies, determine the best practices that can be implemented, communicate these best practices across the sector, and ensure a process exists for their implementation.” CBP responded that it has taken numerous actions to address this recommendation, including weekly reports on Southwest border lines of effort for resource and personnel deployments, detainee movement coordination, coordination with partners and whole-of-government planning efforts, and the establishment of incident command systems.
OIG made three other recommendations specifically to regional chiefs in El Paso. First, calling for existing procedures to be clarified and documented to formalize Border Patrol’s use of OFO facilities, which CBP deemed “not necessary”. OIG also recommended that processes and procedures for making exceptions to TEDS standards should be documented to allow multiple unrelated family units to be detained together in the same pod to maintain family unity during detention. CBP did not concur and Border Patrol noted that it uses the TEDS standards related to family unity and at-risk detainee vulnerability assessments to inform its decision-making when multiple family units are held together in cells or pods. Finally, OIG recommended that Border Patrol El Paso develop and implement quality assurance and quality control tools to ensure the provision of interpretation services for non-Spanish and non-English speaking detainees, particularly during the medical screening process. CBP argued that Border Patrol already has tools in place to ensure interpretation services are used for non-Spanish and non-English speaking detainees. OIG agreed that Border Patrol has the tools to use the interpretation services, but inspectors also observed that these tools are not being consistently used. One detainee OIG interviewed at an El Paso facility who spoke Georgian stated that in their case, efforts were not made by Border Patrol agents to provide interpretation services. Without the capacity to understand English or Spanish, the detainee had to follow what other migrants were doing without understanding what was happening, including search procedures prior to showering. OIG said it is particularly concerned that the lack of effective communication with detainees during medical screenings could result in an unnoticed and untreated health condition worsening and potentially becoming a health emergency.