The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found an El Paso Border Patrol processing center was so overcrowded that detainees were wearing “soiled clothing for days or weeks” and standing on toilets “to make room and gain breathing space.”
While visiting five Border Patrol facilities and two ports of entry the week of May 6, the watchdog group “observed dangerous overcrowding” at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center “with single adults held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees,” according to a report made public Friday.
Although the report indicates the maximum capacity at the facility is 125 detainees, it cites custody logs indicating roughly 750-900 detainees were being held at the processing center the week of the inspection. “Border Patrol agents told us some of the detainees had been held in standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks,” the report says.
Because some detainees were standing on toilets, the report says, access to the toilets themselves was limited.
Hygiene was among the top concerns the report cited. In addition to the lack of open space that resulted in detainees wearing soiled clothes and standing on toilets, the watchdog group noted that further limiting available space was the need “to separate detainees with infectious diseases, such as chicken pox, scabies, and influenza, from each other and from the general population.”
And those separate spaces are vital to contain spread of disease and infection. During the OIG’s visits, they counted approximately 75 people being treated for lice in the parking lot of the facility.
Maintaining hygienic conditions was also described as a possible challenge. During inspections, the inspectors observed more than 100 adult men crowding the hallways while their cell was cleaned. OIG officials stated that facility staff mentioned they felt they had “limited options” if detainees stopped cooperating.
“The photos in this report make it clear that DHS has completely and utterly failed at handling the humanitarian crisis at the border,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement Friday. “The findings serve as further evidence that the Trump Administration is not just neglecting to address the crisis — they are, in fact, exacerbating it.”
OIG staff noted that some of the detainees’ property, including backpacks and suitcases, was considered a “biohazard” by the facility, and that it was discarded in a nearby dumpster. Detainees were also asked to “surrender their valuables, such as money and phones, to DHS staff,” the report says.
The report says OIG staff were “concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety not just of the detainees, but also DHS agents and officers.”
Accordingly, they recommended the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security “take immediate steps to alleviate the overcrowding.” The Department responded, saying they agreed with the recommendation and had constructed a 500-person “soft-sided structure” and were in the process of completing another tent, which it promised by the end of July. The Department also indicated that it intends to open a centralized processing center by the end of 2020.