An Astonishing Government Report on Conditions at the Border

Federal investigators detailed dangerous overcrowding and long detention times at Border Patrol facilities in Texas.

Office of Inspector General / DHS / Handout via Reuters

Adults and children are strewn across the floor behind fencing; some are covered by mylar blankets—aluminum-foil-like sheets designed to keep the cold out in cool temperatures and to deflect the heat in warm temperatures—others are lying uncovered on the cement. Then there are the men and women and children behind glass windows, and the doors marked Holding cell. Some wear face masks, and one man holds a sign that reads Help.

These are images included in a report, released yesterday, by investigators at the Department of Homeland Security. The 16-page report detailed the “dangerous overcrowding” of five Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facilities for migrants who either crossed the border illegally or sought asylum at a port of entry. But the report’s focus was not just the overcrowding; it was also how long people—adults and children alike—were being held.

“Border Patrol was holding about 8,000 detainees in custody at the time of our visit, with 3,400 held longer than the 72 hours generally permitted,” the report said. Under the Flores Agreement, which covers how migrant children in U.S. custody are handled, CBP is supposed to hand over custody to the Department of Health and Human Services within three days. That 72-hour time frame is generally observed for adults as well. The Border Patrol facilities are simply not designed to keep people for longer than that.

But many people—1,500 of the detainees—had been held for more than 10 days. Nearly a third of the 2,669 children—both those who were unaccompanied and those who had crossed with families—at the facilities the investigators studied had been held longer than 72 hours. At one facility in McAllen, Texas, 50 unaccompanied children under the age of 7 had been in custody for more than two weeks while awaiting transfer. After 72 hours, once a child has been turned over to HHS, the government is supposed to find the closest relative in the United States for children in its custody. But it has not worked that way.

Asked for comment on the report, Roger Maier, a spokesman for CBP, told me that, “CBP works with HHS/ORR [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] to place unaccompanied children with HHS/ORR as quickly as space becomes available.” Officials contend that the surge of migrants, which has led to the facilities being beyond capacity, has left the government without the resources to adequately respond. In response to the report, Jim Crumpacker, who handles DHS responses to oversight reports such as this one, called the situation at the border an “acute and worsening crisis.”

Most of the adults who had traveled by themselves had not been able to shower in custody—even those who had been detained for up to a month, the report said. (It was unclear how many people that was.) Some detainees got wet wipes with which to clean themselves. Most weren’t offered a change of clothes. Children weren’t being given hot meals, even though it is required by law; instead, they were fed sandwiches and snacks for meals. And at three of the facilities investigators visited, children had no access to showers.

The report echoed the accounts of lawyers who visited a border facility in Clint, Texas, southwest of El Paso, last month. DHS officials had sought to rebut those claims. During a meeting with reporters on Friday to discuss border arrests, Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of DHS, called the lawyers’ descriptions “unsubstantiated allegations.” Donald Trump’s administration has repeatedly denied eyewitness reports from advocates and media accounts about the situation at the border, pushing back on them as mischaracterizations or sensationalizing. But this report is from the government itself, saying that the overcrowding and conditions at the border are “urgent” and need to be addressed.

Elora Mukherjee was one of the lawyers who visited the site at Clint. As the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, Mukherjee has been working with detained migrant children for more than a decade. There were hungry children who did not have enough to eat, she told me. Children had urinated on their pants, and weren’t offered a change of clothes. Some children had vomited on their clothing. It was a health risk, she said. Children reported seeing guards pulling other children from cages by force. On Monday, a ProPublica report detailed the culture of a Facebook group in which current and former CBP agents joked about the death of migrants. When the lawyers went public with reports of the conditions, Mukherjee reiterated, the government called them unsubstantiated.

“Conditions in CBP facilities have consistently been awful,” she told me. “But what has changed has been the length of time that children have been held in CBP custody—and what is also different is that children are now dying.” Yesterday’s report, Mukherjee said, “shows that our reports are substantiated.”