WASHINGTON – Migrants were overcrowded in federal detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, where dangerous conditions were described as “a ticking time bomb” during June, according to an inspector general’s report Tuesday.
In one room at Customs and Border Protection’s Fort Brown station near the U.S-Mexico border in Texas, 51 women were in a cell with a capacity for 40 juveniles, according to the report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office. In another cell, 71 men were in a cell designated for 41, the report said.
Border Patrol managers told investigators that men had clogged toilets with Mylar blankets or socks to get out of cells during maintenance. Pictures in the report showed migrants crowded behind chain-link fences in a McAllen, Texas, facility or huddling under blankets on the floor. Detainees banged on windows, shouted and pointed to their beards to demonstrate the length of their stays, as investigators visited five facilities during the week of June 10.
“We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained,” said the report by Jennifer Costello, acting inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security. “Senior managers at several facilities raised security concerns for their agents and the detainees. For example, one called the situation ‘a ticking time bomb.’”
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the report showed that the department wasn’t making progress to address the humanitarian crisis at the border.
“DHS is still holding migrants – including families and children – in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. These facilities are clearly inhumane,” Thompson said. “Migrants should not be forced to live in standing room only facilities without access to showers for weeks because DHS cannot leverage its resources effectively.”
But President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers have argued that the crisis has been building for months before Democrats agreed to act. Congress approved $4.6 billion last week for humanitarian assistance for the border.
Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of Homeland Security, told reporters Friday after approval of the funding, but before the inspector-general’s report was released, that the money would provide temporary detention facilities, transportation and medical care for migrants.
“We intend to move very quickly to apply this funding to support our teams managing the crisis on the border and enhancing the conditions for families and children in CBP custody, while expediting the transfer of unaccompanied children to well-equipped facilities at Health and Human Services,” McAleenan said.
CBP's formal written reply to the inspector-general’s report said that the current flow of migrants is “rapidly overwhelming the ability of the federal government to respond,” according to Jim Crumpacker, director of the liaison office with the inspector general. An average of 4,600 people a day crossed the border illegally in May, compared to 700 per day two years earlier, he said. The monthly flow was the highest in a decade, he said.
The conditions arose as apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley have more than doubled in the past year, with 223,263 apprehensions from October through May, compared to 99,835 during the same period a year earlier, according to the Border Patrol. The largest increase occurred with families, which skyrocketed to 135,812 apprehensions during the first eight months of the year from 36,773 a year earlier.
CBP facilities are designed for short stays, before adults are passed along to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and children move to Health and Human Services facilities. But because ICE and HHS facilities are also overcrowded, CBP is unable to move its detainees.
Investigators found nearly one-third of the unaccompanied minors at the facilities – 826 out of 2,669 – were held longer than 72 hours generally permitted under a court settlement known as the Flores agreement. More than 50 of the children were younger than 7 years old and some had been in custody more than two weeks awaiting transfer.
But the department said conditions were easing as more beds came online. CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector opened a soft-sided structure May 3 with 500 beds and a second one the same size June 19, Crumpacker said. The number of unaccompanied children awaiting placements from with HHS had dropped from 2,800 on June 7 to less than 1,000 by June 25, he said.
“Throughout this crisis, CBP continues to do everything it can to promptly transfer, transport, process, release or repatriate those in our custody,” Crumpacker said.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Government watchdog photos show dangerous conditions at Border Patrol sites for migrants