A Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report issued Friday called for the immediate removal of immigrants held in a New Mexico detention facility, a rare move that has sparked an unusual fight with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the report, the inspector general’s office wrote that the immigrants held at the Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico should be removed due to unsanitary living conditions and security lapses. Inspectors reported that they found clogged toilets and faulty sinks and that mold was present throughout the facility. ICE officials, along with the company that operates the facility, Core Civic, disagreed with the findings and are calling the integrity of the report into question.
"We recommend that the Acting Director of ICE immediately relocate all detainees from Torrance County Detention Facility and place no detainees there unless and until the facility ensures adequate staffing and appropriate living conditions," the report states.
The report comes months after Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that under the Biden administration immigrants would not be held in substandard conditions. The findings also prompted outrage among immigration advocates who have long claimed that the detention system needs reform.
“Following this new report on the Torrance County Detention Facility in NM, I call on @ICEgov to immediately terminate the contract & close the center,” Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California wrote on Twitter Friday. “I'm alarmed conditions became this unsafe, unsanitary, & unfit for humans. This cannot be overlooked.”
The report Friday claimed that detainees were, in some instances, getting water from a sink intended for filling up mop buckets and that there wasn’t enough staff on-site. There are less than 60 immigrants held at the facility, according to ICE statistics.
“During our inspection, we found such egregious conditions in the facility that we are issuing this management alert to notify ICE,” the report states. “We have determined that ICE must take immediate steps to address the critical facility staffing shortages and unsanitary living conditions that have led to health and safety risks for detainees at Torrance.”
ICE officials, in a pointed letter sent earlier this month to the inspector general’s office, said the inspectors were not only wrong, but acted unprofessionally. ICE’s acting chief of staff also wrote in the letter that he had serious concerns about the integrity and accuracy of the report.
ICE claims the photo of a detainee getting water from the mop sink was staged, inspectors appeared to have falsified or mischaracterized evidence, and that the inspector had predetermined his findings almost immediately after arriving at the facility.
Core Civic wrote to ICE earlier in the month saying that the “statements contained in the report, and the actions they represent, are so egregious and defamatory that they require your immediate attention to ensure that those responsible for making them are held accountable.”
CoreCivic said that according to video and staff reports “when one detainee used the utility sink in the housing unit to clean his cup, an OIG auditor asked him to step back to the sink, get more water, and drink from it so that the auditor could get a picture on his phone.” The company also said the detainee later discarded the water and walked away.
The caption on the draft version of the report said the detainee was “drinking water” from the sink while the final version clarified it was a “demonstration” of getting water from the sink. Elsewhere, CoreCivic said that pictures of a clogged toilet and moldy sink were taken in vacant housing areas.
“This deliberate effort to falsely portray our company and this facility in a negative light is even more disturbing because it was done under the guise of legitimate oversight. We’re asking for an immediate review of the conduct of the inspectors,” the company said in a statement to BuzzFeed News on Friday.
Both ICE and CoreCivic also pushed back on claims that the facility was poorly staffed.
For its part, the inspector general’s office stood by its findings.
“We take these concerns seriously but fully disagree. Our inspection team provided professional, independent oversight and has documented support for all reported findings. Our employees’ impartiality, independence, and integrity are essential to our oversight work and will remain so moving forward,” the office wrote. The inspectors walking through the facility, they said, quickly determined that the conditions in the facility “necessitated prompt facility action” and said so.
The photo that sparked ICE and CoreCivic criticism was explained by the inspector’s office as occurring after the investigators saw the detainee filling a cup of water from a faucet meant for mop buckets. “Therefore, OIG inspectors asked him to demonstrate how he filled the cup to allow for a photo to document the issue. The photo was not staged, but rather a recreation of what the team had observed just moments prior,” the report states.
The Biden administration has signaled it would seek to scale down the use of private prisons to hold immigrants, especially asylum-seekers. Earlier this year, Politico reported that President Joe Biden was considering an executive order to ban ICE from using private prisons to house immigrants, but no such order has come.
During a roundtable with reporters on Thursday, Mayorkas pointed out that the agency closed two facilities, including one operated by a private company.
“And I articulated the foundational principle in the memorandum I transmitted directing the closure of those two facilities that we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals who are in detention, nor will we tolerate substandard conditions that did not adhere to our standards,” he said.