Homeland Security Staff in Border Facilities Getting Sick on the Job

Supplies at a detention facility in Karnes City, Texas. The IG report noted DHS employees have used their own money to donate food and clothing to unaccompanied minors. Supplies at a detention facility in Karnes City, Texas. The IG report noted DHS employees have used their own money to donate food and clothing to unaccompanied minors. Eric Gay/AP

Homeland Security employees working at detention centers on the U.S. Southern border housing unaccompanied children from Central America have been exposed to disease on the job and become sick, according to a new report from the department’s watchdog.

Customs and Border Protection staff at some Texas facilities reported contracting scabies, lice and chicken pox while on duty; two officers told the inspector general that their children were diagnosed with chicken pox within days of the officers’ contact with an unaccompanied alien child with the illness. Border Patrol personnel at other facilities in the state told investigators that they were potentially exposed to tuberculosis.

“UAC [unaccompanied alien children] and family unit illnesses and unfamiliarity with bathroom facilities resulted in unsanitary conditions and exposure to human waste in some holding facilities,” the report stated. “Contract cleaners and DHS employees are working to maintain sanitary conditions.”

The department’s inspector general just released the first report in a series on conditions in detention centers used to house Central American children fleeing crime and violence in their home countries. More than 57,000 children so far have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal 2014 because of increased gang violence and crime in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The IG directed DHS to create and distribute a “Know Your Rights and Responsibilities” video, available in Spanish and other languages as needed, for children and families in the detention centers that addresses hygiene while in custody, proper use of toilets and showers, department processing procedures including medical screenings and vaccinations, as well as the right to food, water, emergency medical care, telephones, and other information and services.

The watchdog found that, by and large, federal employees and the detention centers included in the July 30 report complied with regulations regarding medical care, sanitation, food supply and other services. The IG conducted 87 unannounced site visits between July 1 and July 16 at 63 detention centers in Arizona, California and Texas. The inspector general’s office will continue to assess the detention centers and issue monthly reports on conditions.

“The OIG is responsible for providing oversight to DHS and its agencies,” said Homeland Security IG John Roth, in a statement. “The challenges posed by this influx of unaccompanied alien children are immediate and ongoing. They require a proactive, constructive response by my office.”

The IG said it did not witness any inappropriate behavior or misconduct among DHS personnel during the unannounced visits. The watchdog, however, is investigating a June complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 116 detainees that alleges criminal behavior and violation of civil rights and other laws. The department’s Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties also is conducting an investigation into the alleged incidents.

The report noted that DHS employees were donating clothing and toys to detainees, and in some cases, using their own money to buy food for children and families to supplement government supplies.

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