Management alert highlights dangerous overcrowding at El Paso processing center for undocumented detainees.
Inspectors general have been criticized for not always being timely in their investigations.
But John Kelly, the acting watchdog at the Homeland Security Department, became a real-time player last week when he issued a dramatic, illustrated management alert warning of dangerous over-crowding at a processing center for undocumented detainees in the border town of El Paso, Texas.
The alert—which was well received by Customs and Border Protection—came the same day that President Trump announced he was threatening Mexico with new tariffs if it doesn’t do more to curb the influx of illegals into the United States. The alert also went to congressional committees, playing into the larger political drama surrounding the Trump approach to border security.
“We are recommending that the Department of Homeland Security take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center,” the alert said, citing the IG’s authority in law to inspect and make recommendations to “promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness in DHS programs and operations.”
A facility designed to hold 125 detainees was found on May 7-8 during unannounced inspections to be holding between 750 and 900 detainees. “We are 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,” the alert said.
“Border Patrol management on site said there is a high incidence of illness among their staff,” the report continued. “Border Patrol management at [the processing center] and other sites also raised concerns about employee morale and that conditions were elevating anxiety and affecting Department of Homeland Security employees’ personal lives. They noted that some employees eligible for retirement had accelerated their retirement dates, while others were considering alternative employment opportunities.”
IG staff reported, after multiple unannounced visits to border and interviews, CBP statistics showing that the number of Southwest border migrant apprehensions—which include many children—during the first seven months of fiscal 2019 “has in general already surpassed that of the total apprehensions for each of the previous four fiscal years.”
The auditors found that a cell with a maximum capacity of 12 was holding 76 detainees; a cell with a maximum capacity of eight was holding 41 detainees; and a cell with a maximum capacity of 35 held 155.
In response to a draft of the alert, the DHS liaison to the IG Jim Crumpacker agreed with the IG’s recommendation for immediate action. He said the Border Patrol “has taken steps to ensure an elevated standard of care in response to the current humanitarian crisis and has directed additional personnel and resources to the border. CBP has constructed a weatherproof and climate-controlled soft-sided structure in the El Paso Sector,” he said. That new structure will allow the agency “to expedite, process, and transport migrants” to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Health and Human Services Department.
“The structure provides areas for eating, sleeping, recreation and personal hygiene for up to 500 people,” Crumpacker added. “Additionally, a modular facility that is capable of holding up to 800 people is projected to be in use by July 2019. Construction of a permanent Centralized Processing Center in El Paso is planned to further alleviate overcrowding.” With a capacity of about 1,800, that new processing center is expected to be operational by Nov. 30, 2020.
“Congress can also help,” DHS added, “by working on targeted solutions to restore integrity to our immigration system and remove the incentives for families and children to cross our border illegally.”
The IG rejected that timeframe. “Because DHS’s corrective action is critical to the immediate health and safety needs of detainees, who cannot continue to be held in standing-room-only conditions for weeks until additional tents are constructed, we consider the recommendation open and unresolved,” the IG said.
Trump’s May 30 statement about applying tariffs to alter the situation cited his authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. “Mexico’s passive cooperation in allowing this mass incursion constitutes an emergency and extraordinary threat to the national security and economy of the United States,” Trump stated. “Mexico has very strong immigration laws and could easily halt the illegal flow of migrants, including by returning them to their home countries. Additionally, Mexico could quickly and easily stop illegal aliens from coming through its southern border with Guatemala.”
His points suggesting a crisis were reinforced that day in a conference call with reporters by acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. They reported that on May 29, a single group of 1,036 families and unaccompanied children walked from Juárez, Mexico, into the United States illegally—the largest group ever apprehended at the border.
“The current influx of illegal crossings into the United States from Mexico is overwhelming the resources of CBP and DHS and has severely impacted the ability of the department to secure the U.S. border and enforce the immigration laws of the United States,” McAleenan said. “We've also asked Congress to close the gaps in our laws that incentivize this unlawful flow. We will continue to engage Mexico and Congress on solutions. And the status quo is clearly unacceptable and getting worse.”
The administration’s policy approach, however, was condemned by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who seized on the IG alert. “The photos in this report make it clear that DHS has completely and utterly failed at handling the humanitarian crisis at the border,” he said. “The findings serve as further evidence that the Trump administration is not just neglecting to address the crisis–they are, in fact, exacerbating it.”
Thompson said Customs and Border Protection has “known for months to expect a higher-than-usual number of migrant families coming to our border to seek asylum–yet has done nothing to prioritize adequate, safe and humane temporary holding facilities for those migrants.”
The Trump administration, meanwhile, continues to use other agencies to implement its policies at the southern border, including repurposing funds to build a new wall.
Details were summarized in a recently released Congressional Research Service report, which noted how the Army Corps of Engineers is spending $2.5 billion in DHS and Defense Department funds to erect border barriers, roads and lighting along the southern border. Eleven of its projects are along drug-smuggling corridors, CRS noted. The Army engineers are “awarding project-specific contracts and [the agency is] seeking to create a prequalified source list of companies to perform up to $8 billion in border infrastructure projects,” the report said.
“Section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, as amended, confers the Secretary of Homeland Security with broad authority to construct barriers and roads along the U.S. border to deter illegal crossings and provides the secretary with authority to waive legal requirements that may impede the expeditious construction of barriers and roads deployed under this authority,” CRS added.