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Immigrants In El Paso Were Held In Dangerously Overcrowded, Standing Room–Only Cells

Immigrants also had limited access to showers and clean clothing, with some wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks, inspectors found.

Posted on May 31, 2019, at 3:52 p.m. ET

DHS Office of Inspector General / Via oig.dhs.gov

A surprise visit at five Border Patrol facilities in Texas by a government watchdog group found that immigrants were being detained in dangerous, overcrowded standing room–only cells, with some standing on toilets to get breathing space.

At a processing center in El Paso, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that facility didn’t have the capacity to hold the hundreds of people inside. El Paso del Norte Processing Center’s maximum capacity is 125 detainees, but on May 7 and 8, Border Patrol’s custody logs showed there were about 750 and 900 detainees, respectively, which is counter to the agency’s standards.

“We observed dangerous overcrowding at the facility with single adults held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees,” a report on the conditions states.

The report comes as the number of immigrant families seeking asylum at the southwest border continues to increase and strain Border Patrol facilities built to hold single adults, not parents and children.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended 109,144 people along the southern border in April, the highest monthly figure since 2007, though still well below the peak of 1.6 million in 2000. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters Thursday that May’s numbers are on pace to be the highest in over 12 years and surpass April’s apprehensions.

The conditions detailed in the report confirm many of the complaints from recently released immigrants BuzzFeed News spoke to in recent months. In March, immigrants held behind a chain-link fence topped with razor wire said they had endured cold and windy nights sleeping on rocky dirt underneath the Paso del Norte International Bridge, where the facility conditions detailed in the report is also located.

DHS Office of Inspector General / Via oig.dhs.gov

One cell with a maximum capacity of 12 held 76 detainees. Another cell with a maximum capacity of 8 held 41 detainees. And one cell with a maximum capacity of 35 held 155 detainees, according to the report.

People at the El Paso del Norte Processing Center were also held longer than 72 hours, counter to US Customs and Border Protection guidelines.

During the week of May 6, the OIG visited five Border Patrol stations and two ports of entry in the El Paso area, including eastern New Mexico. They were reviewing CBP’s Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search (TEDS) standards, which govern the agency’s interaction with detained individuals.

The report said the El Paso sector has experienced the sharpest increase in apprehensions when comparing the first seven months of fiscal year 2019 to the same period in 2018. During the 2018 period, El Paso agents apprehended 13,646 people. That number jumped to 98,052 in 2019, with most of the increase being driven by family units.

The OIG also found that CBP struggled to maintain hygienic conditions in holding cells, with immigrants having limited access to showers and clean clothing. Some people wore soiled clothing for days or weeks, the report states. The limited space also made it difficult to separate detainees who were sick from the general population.

DHS Office of Inspector General / Via oig.dhs.gov

A Border Patrol agent verifying temperature inside a holding cell for women.

“We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also DHS agents and officers,” the report states.

Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, in a statement said that what he saw at the El Paso del Norte Processing Center in April haunted him.

“The overcrowding and prolonged detention of migrants represents an immediate risk to the health and safety of not only the migrants but also DHS agents and officers,” Durbin said. “Unfortunately, President Trump’s response to this heartbreaking humanitarian challenge is threats and cruelty that only make the situation worse for the migrants and our nation.”

Some detainees were observed standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, limiting toilet access. Border Patrol agents also said detainees who were not ill raised medical complaints in order to get out of the cells, adding to the medical staff’s burden.

The report states that, despite CBP headquarters being aware of the situation at the El Paso del Norte Processing Center for months and even sent staff to help, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hasn’t identified a process to alleviate the overcrowding issues. Part of the problem is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency tasked with long-term detention, said it doesn’t have enough bed space to take all of Border Patrol’s adult detainees.

In its response, DHS said it has constructed soft-sided structures at the El Paso station with the capacity to hold 500 people. The agency also said CBP would construct an 800-capacity facility in El Paso that’s expected to be running by July 31, 2019.

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