The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General is warning about "dangerous overcrowding" in Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.
In a strongly worded report, the inspector general said the prolonged detention of migrants without proper food, hygiene or laundry facilities — some for more than a month — requires "immediate attention and action."
The report comes amid growing outrage over detention conditions for migrants and follows reports that migrant children were kept in squalid conditions without enough food and basic necessities in a Border Patrol station in West Texas.
Inspectors from DHS's Office of Inspector General in June visited Border Patrol facilities and ports of entry across the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the busiest sector in the country for illegal border crossings.
"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," they wrote.
In its response to the report, the Department of Homeland Security says the surge of migrants crossing the Southern border has led to an "acute and worsening crisis."
"The current migration flow and the resulting humanitarian crisis are rapidly overwhelming the ability of the Federal Government to respond," DHS says.
In May, according to DHS, an average of more than 4,600 people a day crossed illegally or arrived at ports of entry without the proper documents, compared to less than 700 a day in the same period two years ago.
DHS says Customs and Border Protection facilities are at "peak capacity" and that the agency is adding detention capacity at three tent facilities in order to improve the conditions for migrants. CBP also says it "continues to take steps to address the health and safety of those in custody," including by expanding medical services.
The inspector general's office released a report in May describing similarly dangerous overcrowding conditions in Border Patrol cells in the El Paso region.
The latest report from the Rio Grande Valley includes photos of migrants penned into overcrowded Border Patrol facilities — including one man pressing a cardboard sign to a cell window with the word "Help."
The inspectors quote one unnamed senior manager calling the situation a "ticking time bomb."
Inspectors found that hundreds of children were held for longer than the 72 hours, the maximum time federal rules allow. In some cases, kids were held for more than two weeks. And some adults were kept in standing-room-only cells, without access to showers, for more than a week.
Inspectors said Border Patrol management informed them there had been "security incidents," such as detainees clogging toilets with Mylar blankets and socks in order to be released from their cells during maintenance.
"We ended our site visit at one Border Patrol facility early because our presence was agitating an already difficult situation," the inspectors wrote. "Specifically, when detainees observed us, they banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody, and gestured to evidence of their time in custody (e.g., beards)."
NOEL KING, HOST:
Detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border have been under scrutiny for the conditions in which migrants are being held. And then yesterday, the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department released a striking report. It called out the Border Patrol for dangerous overcrowding in its holding cells, among other things. And this is notable in part because the inspector general is a government watchdog; it is not a partisan group. It said this requires immediate attention and action. NPR's John Burnett is on the line with us from Austin, Texas.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.
KING: All right, so this report is short. It's about 16 pages in total. What's in it?
BURNETT: Well, last month, inspectors visited five Border Patrol stations and two ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley - that's the southern tip of Texas that has the most illegal crossings. They found hundreds of children had been in jail cells that were totally inappropriate for kids, and they'd been there for more than 72 hours, which is beyond the federal limit. In one instance, they found 50 small kids younger than 7 who'd been in these conditions for over two weeks. They didn't have access to showers. There was no laundry to wash their clothes. Some were not getting hot meals. And remember, we heard the similar horror stories from lawyers who visited these inconsolable children crowded into immigrant holding cells in Clint, Texas.
KING: That's right. We've been hearing these stories about kids. What does the report say about conditions in detention for adults?
BURNETT: Just as bad, if not worse. One group of adults had been in a cell so crowded they described it as standing room only - for a week. Some were there for more than a month without a shower in their same traveling clothes. They got bologna sandwiches every day, and some folks were getting sick from those. The auditors in the recent report said they were concerned that, quote, "overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety" of detainees and DHS agents.
KING: OK, that's really interesting. Why would DHS agents be at risk?
BURNETT: Well, one senior DHS manager described it as a ticking time bomb. The auditors said they had to even cut short their visit to one station because they were afraid they'd cause a riot. Migrants were banging on windows and pointing to their beards to show how long they'd been in there. Some had already attempted to escape - really alarming situation.
KING: John, there has been a public outcry growing over all of this. We had lawmakers down along the border on Monday.
KING: They reported terrible conditions. What is this all starting to add up to, if anything?
BURNETT: Well, there's a public outcry that's growing, for one thing. I mean, to me, it's on a par with the outrage that we were hearing over the Trump administration's family separation policy last year. Yesterday, there were dozens of protests across the country calling on the administration to close any facility where they keep kids, from these Border Patrol cells to child shelters that they call camps. About 300 people showed up in a park in downtown Austin, where I live.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Close the camp. Close the camp. Close the camp.
KING: So DHS under a tremendous amount of pressure. What are they saying?
BURNETT: Well, they say the situation on the southern border is an acute and worsening crisis. And to dramatize this, they pointed out that in May they were detaining an average of 4,600 people a day across the whole border; that's compared to fewer than 700 people a day two years ago. And they said there's simply no place to put them all. The child shelters are full. ICE detention centers don't have any more beds. But people keep crossing the border, and they back up into the Border Patrol stations. CBP says their facilities are at peak capacity. They've already added a couple of 500-bed tents where the migrants can live, and now they're adding a third.
But this isn't the first time they've been criticized for keeping kids and adults in these awful conditions. In May, the same DHS inspector general described the same kind of overcrowding in Border Patrol cells upriver in El Paso.
KING: NPR's John Burnett in Austin.
John, thanks so much.
BURNETT: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.