Extreme overcrowding and children younger than 7 being held in custody for more than two weeks – far longer than the allowed 72 hours – are among the “urgent” issues discovered at Border Patrol facilities in unannounced visits by an internal government watchdog.
The unannounced inspections took place in early June in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, along the US-Mexico border. That area is the busiest sector for arrests on the southern border.
The report includes several photos that depict the extreme overcrowding, as well as standing-room-only conditions in some Border Patrol facilities, which are designed to be temporary holding facilities. However, over the past several months the length of time in custody has grown amid the ongoing influx of migrant families and children who turn themselves in to agents at the southern border.
For example, at the Centralized Processing Center in McAllen, Texas – the main location for unaccompanied children in the region – 165 children had been in custody longer than a week.
Investigators also found that, according to US Border Patrol custody data, roughly 30% of minors at the inspected facilities were held longer than the 72 hours permitted, including some children under 7 who had been held for more than two weeks awaiting transfer to Department of Health and Human Services custody.
When CNN went inside the processing center last week, there were around 1,900 people in a space designed for 1,500, who included more than 400 unaccompanied children and around 1,200 family members.
Inside the cavernous space, the center is divided into sections for single adults, families and unaccompanied minors, who are kept behind chain-link fencing.
The lights are never turned off, which Customs and Border Protection said was for safety reasons. There are no beds or cots, but children and families have green mats to lie on, as well as Mylar blankets to keep warm.
Customs and Border Protection policy, rooted in legal agreements, requires that children be transferred out of custody within 72 hours. The agency aims to move both children and adults out of its custody in that time frame.
According to the report, there were 3,400 people in the Rio Grande Valley facilities when inspectors visited who were held longer than the 72 hours, including 1,500 people who had been held for more than 10 days.
Inspectors also said they observed “serious overcrowding” among children and families, as well as single adults, during the visit to five Border Patrol facilities in the region.
The watchdog found additional violations of detention policy, such as a lack of hot meals, inadequate access to showers and limited access to a change of clothes.
For example, children at three of the five Border Patrol facilities did not have access to showers, despite a policy requiring that “reasonable efforts” be made to provide showers to children who are in detention for 48 hours.
And many single adults were found to have been receiving only bologna sandwiches to eat, causing some on the diet to become constipated and require medical attention.
At one facility, adults were held in standing-room-only conditions for more than a week. At another, some adults were held in overcrowded cells for more than a month.
“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,” reads the report.
A senior Border Patrol manager at one of the facilities called the situation a “ticking time bomb,” with senior managers at several facilities raising concerns for the safety of the agents and detainees, according to the report.
There had already been security incidents among men at multiple facilities, including clogging toilets with Mylar blankets and socks in order to be released from their cells, refusals to return to cells and attempted escapes, Border Patrol officials reported to the inspectors.
In response to the report, the Department of Homeland Security told the inspector general that in order to ease capacity, it had installed two tent facilities to hold 1,000 people. The department plans to open additional temporary structures for single adults at the end of the month. Additionally, the department said it had expanded its medical services in the region.
“DHS is devoted to the care and processing of the individuals in our custody with the utmost dignity and respect,” wrote Jim Crumpacker, the department’s liaison to the inspector general office.
This report comes nearly a month after the inspector general found “dangerous overcrowding” and other issues in the El Paso Border Patrol region.
In May, the watchdog found “standing room only conditions” at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center, which has a maximum capacity of 125 migrants. On May 7 and May 8, logs indicated there were “approximately 750 and 900 detainees, respectively.”
The inspector general said the new report highlights additional concerns with respect to children and families being detained in the Rio Grande Valley.
The report also comes as Democratic lawmakers descended on the El Paso region this week after recent reports that migrant children were held under poor health and hygiene conditions at multiple US Customs and Border Protection facilities in Texas. After touring two facilities Monday, lawmakers expressed outrage over the conditions they saw.