Overcrowded US migrant centres a 'ticking time bomb'

Conditions at a US Border Patrol holding station in McAllen, Texas.
Conditions at a US Border Patrol holding station in McAllen, Texas. PHOTO: OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL/EPA-EFE

Report on facilities at border raises concerns about health and safety of detainees, agents

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK • Government investigators have warned of dangerous overcrowding at more migrant facilities on the south-west United States border, publishing photos on Tuesday of packed cells in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, where some children have no access to showers or hot meals.

A report issued by investigators for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said supervisors raised concerns for the health and safety of detainees and agents, warning that the overcrowding represented a "ticking time bomb".

The DHS watchdog issued the report after visits last month to five US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities in the Rio Grande Valley sector, the busiest area of the border for migrant arrests.

It came as President Donald Trump's administration pushed back against criticism of its migrant detention centres on the US-Mexico border.

Conditions at the centres have been a flashpoint since May, when the watchdog warned of similar conditions at facilities in the El Paso, Texas sector, west of the Rio Grande Valley, with migrants held for weeks instead of days, and adults kept in cells with standing room only.

Security incidents among men at Rio Grande Valley facilities included detainees clogging toilets in order to be released from their cells, migrants refusing to return to their cells, and special operations teams being brought in to show that Border Patrol personnel were prepared to use force, the report said.

Migrants banged on cell windows and shouted when investigators visited. Most single adults had not had a shower, despite several having been held as long as a month.

One photo showed a man in a cell with 88 men, which was built to hold 41, holding a message that said: "Help 40 Day(s) Here."

A protester at a "Close the Camps" rally in front of the White House on Tuesday. PHOTO: DPA

The watchdog's report recommended that the CBP accelerate the transfer of single adults to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for long-term migrant detention.

Border Patrol stations have been overwhelmed after migrant apprehensions hit a 13-year high in May during a surge in Central American families.

Migrant flows have since dropped after Mexico deployed thousands of militarised police, as part of a deal with the US to avoid US tariffs on Mexican goods.

Border-wide apprehensions fell 30 per cent to 100,037 last month from 144,278 in May, including people who appeared at border crossings and were deemed inadmissible, the Mexican government said on Tuesday, citing CBP data.

Members of a congressional group visiting facilities in El Paso on Monday said migrants were being kept in deplorable conditions.

The delegation had been told to surrender its mobile phones ahead of the tour, but Democratic US Representative Joaquin Castro smuggled a device into a Border Patrol station and took a video of women in a cramped cell.

Some said they had been held for 50 days, some separated from children, denied showers for up to 15 days and in some cases, medication, Mr Castro tweeted.


According to Democratic US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, women were told to drink out of a toilet.

"I don't know what Ms Ocasio-Cortez is talking about," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in an interview with Fox Business Network, calling members of the CBP "some of the bravest men and women on the planet".

"They provided three meals a day to people who are here illegally and unlawfully, two snacks in between," he added.

Mr Trump has made a crackdown on illegal immigration the centrepiece of his domestic policy agenda and 2020 re-election bid. But his efforts to build a wall on the southern border have been blocked in Congress, and he was forced last year to backtrack after his "zero-tolerance" border policy of separating migrant children from their parents provoked widespread outrage.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Seattle blocked a Trump administration policy that would have kept thousands of asylum seekers in custody while they pursued their cases. The American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups had sued the government to stop the policy of denying bond hearings to asylum seekers.

US District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled that people detained after entering the country to seek asylum were entitled to such hearings.

In New York, several hundred people gathered on Tuesday to demonstrate against the Trump administration's treatment of migrants, part of a planned nationwide day of protests by rights groups targeting members of the US Congress.

The demonstrations were fuelled by fears the Trump administration is preparing a round-up of immigrants who are in the country illegally. Last month, Mr Trump delayed the raids by two weeks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2019, with the headline 'Overcrowded US migrant centres a 'ticking time bomb''. Print Edition | Subscribe