A government watchdog agency responsible for overseeing the conditions that federal agencies hold immigrants in said it will not be visiting facilities because of the coronavirus, which observers worry will diminish independent inspections.
In an email reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said for the time being, they will only visit facilities when they determine they can do so safely. In the meantime, inspectors will continue to conduct their work virtually.
The DHS OIG didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In recent years, unannounced inspections at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities from the government watchdog have resulted in critical reports on how the US treats and detains immigrants in its care. Their investigations have also helped substantiate first hand accounts from immigrants detained at US border and ICE facilities.
Elora Mukherjee, the director of the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said the lack of onsite inspections from DHS OIG was concerning, especially as ICE continues to detain children, families, and adults during the coronavirus pandemic.
"OIG's refusal to conduct on-site inspections of ICE and CBP facilities means there will be no oversight at a moment when oversight is needed more than ever," Mukherjee told BuzzFeed News. "To prevent more deaths, DHS should release immigrants immediately."
Randy Capps, director of research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the diminished oversight is concerning because immigration agencies haven't been transparent about conditions inside their facilities. The DHS OIG inspections were one of the few ways the public could get accurate information from inside these facilities, he said.
"They have always tried to keep people out and keep what goes on inside these detention centers a secret," Capps told BuzzFeed News. "To me it's a hear no evil, see no evil approach."
It is especially concerning during the coronavirus pandemic as the number of COVID-19 cases inside ICE detention continue to rise, Capps said. He asked how the public will know about the conditions thousands of immigrants are currently housed in as the virus continues to spread.
"We need much more transparency and not less," Capps said.
In June, DHS' OIG said ICE facilities were unable to practice social distancing and isolate or quarantine people infected with COVID-19. This inquiry was conducted via surveys to ICE personnel at dozens of facilities.
"We chose to conduct the inspection via survey because of inherent risks
associated with on-site inspections, and because the survey allowed us to
quickly gain real-time information about ICE detention facilities," the report said.
The DHS OIG inspections have found immigrant children and adults were held by US border authorities in disgusting cramped conditions, that guards at an ICE facility were putting people in solitary confinement without justification, and that, contrary to federal law, border officers sent asylum-seekers already on US soil back to Mexico.
A report dated June 12 said CBP failed to meet detention standards, including serious overcrowding and prolonged detention, in 2019. The report was the result of 21 unannounced inspections.
In separate reports, inspectors found dozens of immigrant families separated at the border likely shouldn't have been. Another found that DHS officials lacked the technology to track all the immigrant families who were separated at the southern border, and that as a result, the government watchdog couldn't confirm if there were more than reported and if they have been reunited.