Homeland Security watchdog pans conditions at migrant detention facilities
In 1 California detention facility, inspectors found nooses in detainee cells
The U.S. Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog says rotting food, mouldy and dilapidated bathrooms and agency practices at immigration detention facilities may violate detainees' rights.
The Office of Inspector General made unannounced visits to four facilities in California, Louisiana, Colorado and New Jersey between May and November last year, according to a report published Thursday. The facilities together house about 5,000 detainees.
In an Adelanto, Calif., detention facility, inspectors found nooses in detainee cells, the segregation of certain detainees in an overly restrictive way and inadequate medical care, the report said.
It comes as the Trump administration is managing a worsening problem at the U.S.-Mexico border, with a dramatic increase in the number of Central American migrants. While most are families who cannot be easily returned to their home countries, the number of single adults is also on the rise. Immigration officials are detaining an increasing number of single adults — about 52,000 now — but are funded for only 45,000. The administration has asked for $4.5 billion US more for additional bed space.
Last month, Border Patrol agents made 132,887 apprehensions, topping 100,000 for the first time since April 2007, and setting a record with 84,542 adults and children apprehended. An additional 11,507 were children travelling alone and 36,838 were single adults.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they are working to ensure all facilities comply with standards. They say they have already trained food service staff on food safety, and they extensively cleaned and renovated housing units. They included photos of cleaned showers and bathrooms in their response.
"The safety, rights and health of detainees in ICE's care are paramount," the agency's chief financial officer, Stephen Roncone, wrote to the inspector general's office. "ICE has made substantial progress to address the findings and recommendation in the OIG's draft report."
Holding single adults is an administration priority; officials say detention is one of the only consequences that can be applied to those crossing illegally. But two facilities took detainees out of the general population to special units as punishment before they should have, three wrongly put detainees in restraints and one facility strip-searched detainees who were to be segregated, the watchdog found.
In a facility in Essex, N.J., inspectors found detainees lacked toiletries and were given uniforms that didn't fit.
Visitors not allowed at Colorado site
At a facility in Aurora, Colo., detainees were not allowed visits from friends or families, even though there was room for them to do so. Managers said they were concerned about drugs or weapons being smuggled, but they acknowledged that visits should be considered.
Diana DeGette, Democratic congresswoman from Colorado, said the report confirmed what she had suspected about treatment there.
"We need to take a hard look at ICE's use of these private prisons and, at the very least, make clear to the agency that outsourcing its responsibility to physically hold these detainees does not absolve it of its obligation to properly care for them," she wrote.
There have been reports of poor medical care and dangerous conditions at ICE facilities for years.
The report came down as the government said it would be opening a new mass facility to hold migrant children in Texas and considering detaining hundreds more youths on three military bases around the country, adding up to 3,000 new beds to the already overtaxed system.
The new emergency facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, will hold as many as 1,600 teens in a complex that once housed oilfield workers on government-leased land near the border, said Mark Weber, spokesperson for Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The agency is also weighing using army and air force bases in Georgia, Montana and Oklahoma to house an additional 1,400 children in the coming weeks, amid the influx of children travelling to the U.S. alone. Most crossed the border without their parents, escaping violence and corruption in Central America, and are held in government custody while authorities determine if they can be released to relatives or family friends.
All the new facilities will be considered temporary emergency shelters, so they won't be subject to state child welfare licensing requirements, Weber said. In January, the government shut down an unlicensed detention camp in the Texas desert under political pressure, and another unlicensed facility called Homestead remains in operation in the Miami suburbs.
"It is our legal requirement to take care of these children so that they are not in Border Patrol facilities," Weber said. "They will have the services that ORR always provides, which is food, shelter and water."
Under fire for the death of two children who went through the agency's network of shelters and facing lawsuits over the treatment of teens in its care, the agency says it must set up new facilities to accommodate new arrivals or risk running out of beds.
The announcement of the program's expansion follows the government's decision to scale back or cut paying for recreation, English-language courses and legal services for the more than 13,200 migrant toddlers, school-age children and teens in its custody.
Attorneys said the move violates a legal settlement known as the Flores agreement that requires the government to provide education and recreational activities to migrant children in its care.
"If they are going to open the program up in these numbers and they can't even manage the influx facility that they have in a humane way, then compounding that is going to be disastrous," said Holly Cooper, an attorney at the Immigration Law Clinic at University of California-Davis who represents detained youth.
Last week, lawyers filed a motion claiming the government also was violating the decades-old Flores settlement by keeping kids at Homestead for months in some cases, instead of releasing them within 20 days.