Overcrowding, substandard care for migrants at US Border Patrol facilities in 2019 surge, watchdog report says

A new report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog office documents the challenges border agents faced in providing adequate care to more than 850,000 migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border last year. 

DHS’ Office of the Inspector General recorded serious overcrowding issues, among other problems such as substandard care for migrant children, at nearly all of the 14 U.S. Border Patrol stations they visited during a series of unannounced inspections from April to June 2019.

The timing of the inspections coincided with a peak in the number of migrants apprehended. Just in May of that year, agents processed more than 132,000 migrants, the highest singe-month total since 2005. 

The drastic surge in the arrival of mainly asylum-seeking families and minors overwhelmed Border Patrol facilities and resources.

The Inspector General’s report found that the overcrowding they encountered during inspections caused other serious concerns with prolonged detention, as well as limited medical care for migrants

“Although Border Patrol established temporary holding facilities to alleviate overcrowding, 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,” the Inspector General’s office concluded.

“Also, 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” such as the flu or gastrointestinal viruses, the report added.

Overcrowding reached ‘dangerous’ level in Texas

While inspectors also visited several ports of entry, the report focused mainly on Border Patrol facilities because that’s where they encountered most of the issues with overcrowding and migrant care.

Overcrowding was especially “dangerous” in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Both areas experienced the largest number of migrant arrivals along the entire border. The issues were so severe the Inspector General alerted senior DHS officials to the problems, which they said required immediate attention.

Photos included within the report showed the extent of overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities border wide.

Two photos from the Arizona border taken in April showed two holding cells, one for migrant youth and one for women. The migrants in the photo were either sitting on benches or the floor, but nearly all available space was occupied. 

Another pair of photos taken in El Paso in June showed migrants packed inside an air-conditioned, military-style tent that border agents had set up to alleviate overcrowding at its permanent holding facilities. One of the photos also showed migrants, including children, sitting on the asphalt under the shade of the tent.

Under federal law, Border Patrol is permitted to hold migrants for up to 72 hours, before they are transferred to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services if they’re unaccompanied minors.

But the Inspector General’s report said overcrowding and backlogs within those other federal agencies made it difficult for Border Patrol to meet those obligations. 

“At the time of our visits, across the 14 facilities, at least 3,750 detainees out of approximately 9,400 (nearly 40%) had been held longer than 72 hours,” the report said.

Praise for medical response, but disease spread easily

One possible bright spot for Border Patrol highlighted in the report is the agency’s efforts to provide adequate medical care for migrants, especially in light of a series of high-profile deaths of several minors in the months prior to the inspections. 

Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees Border Patrol, “took extraordinary measures to deploy health professionals, expand an existing medical contract, conduct medical screenings of all detainees before entrance into a facility, and arrange dedicated appointment hours at local clinics to manage medical care more efficiently,” the report said. 

Ten of the 14 Border Patrol facilities had medical teams on site, while at the remaining stations, agents with paramedic training screened migrants for any illnesses or health conditions.

But despite these efforts, the border agency still struggled to contain the spread of infectious diseases given the rampant overcrowding at its facilities, inspectors found. As the agency set up holding areas to isolate migrants with infectious illnesses, that meant reducing available space to hold non-infected migrants.

“On-site medical staff we interviewed said they were overwhelmed and the crowded conditions at the facilities were not conducive to treating contagious illnesses,” the report said. “For instance, Border Patrol’s short term detention infrastructure generally did not provide sufficient space for quarantining or specialized ventilation systems.” 

Another area of concern the Inspector General report found was the quality of care for migrant children.

Court orders mandate Customs and Border Protection to hold children in the least restrictive setting. But overcrowding and concerns over the spread of disease forced agents to keep hold children in closed cells. 

Border Patrol also “fell short” in other areas of care such as “offering children access to telephones, giving children hot meals and a change of clothing, providing access to showers, and safeguarding detainee property,” the report found.

In some instances, migrant children were unable to shower for more than 48 hours. In two Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor along the border for the arrival of migrants, agents didn’t provide hot meals to minors until inspectors showed up because they had “too many detainees on site to microwave hot meals,” the report said.

CBP agrees with recommendations

The Office of the Inspector General offered some recommendations to Border Patrol, urging them to implement procedures to make sure they’re providing all mandated services to children, including access to phone calls.

They also tasked the agency with implementing “consistent” policies on how they handle the private property of migrants in custody, after inspectors witnessed agents “indiscriminately” discarding their belongings in some of the stations they visited.

Customs and Border Protection agreed with the report’s recommendations saying they would strengthen efforts to document the services minors receive in their custody, as well as establish best practices to handle migrants’ belongings.

In a memo addressing the report’s findings, Henry Moak, the agency’s chief accountability officer, said Customs and Border Protection took steps in response to the “unprecedented surge” of migrants in 2019 to raise standards of care and reduce overcrowding.

The agency mobilized to build “soft-sided” facilities, or tents, at the three busiest areas of the border In Yuma, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, to help reduce overcrowding. They also re-assigned staff to help out at the busiest areas.

“CBP recognized the effects of overcrowding. Although CBP cannot control the flow of Southwest Border crossings, it has taken steps to enhance its response when the flow is at crisis levels,” Moak said.

The Inspector General’s office published its report a few days after another government watchdog office also scrutinized the border agency’s response to surge in migrant arrivals.

The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, said Customs and Border Protection misspent funds that Congress had allocated for migrant care and had instead used it on dog supplies, ATVs and bikes, and building maintenance, among other things.

In Arizona, inspectors visited the border crossings at San Luis, Nogales and Naco, as well as Border Patrol stations in Yuma, Tucson, Nogales and Naco.

By Rafael Carranza, Arizona Republic, USA Today

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