GAO found that some Border Patrol agents asked migrants to throw away backpacks and clothes because they supposedly were health hazards.

GAO found that some Border Patrol agents asked migrants to throw away backpacks and clothes because they supposedly were health hazards. grandriver / Getty Images

CBP disposes of and loses migrants’ personal belongings due to unclear policy, watchdog says

The GAO recommended that Border Patrol clarify the amount of personal property from individuals in its custody that should be stored and what items may or may not be discarded.

Imprecise guidance is leading to U.S. Customs and Border Protection discarding and losing important personal items for individuals in its custody along the southwest border, according to a Government Accountability Office report publicly released last month. 

Border Patrol personnel are supposed to store and either transfer or return the personal property (not including contraband) of people in its custody. But the government watchdog found that four of the nine Border Patrol sectors along the southwest border required migrants to downsize their personal property into a clear plastic bag and discard any items that don’t fit. Agency officials said this is necessary due to limited storage space.    

Similarly, GAO investigators observed agents in one sector asking migrants to throw away their backpacks and clothes on the basis that they were health hazards because they could be soiled. Officials from Border Patrol headquarters said that practice is not standard. 

“This GAO report confirms what my office has been hearing from individuals and advocacy groups for years: CBP continues to force individuals to do away with their personal belongings while in custody, despite policy stating they must safeguard, itemize, document and keep possessions accessible. These inconsistencies within [the Homeland Security Department] must stop,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., one of the representatives who requested the report, in a statment. 

GAO also found that Border Patrol and CBP field offices do not consistently communicate information to individuals about how to retrieve lost or left behind personal property once they are no longer in custody. 

The report highlighted data from the DHS Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman that it received 95 complaints involving personal property for the first half of fiscal 2023, including 13 about missing birth certificates or other identification documents. It also noted that the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties got 103 complaints regarding property during the same period, 19 of which were about missing identification documents. 

The American Civil Liberties Union in February issued a report about Border Patrol’s confiscation of migrants’ belongings. It cited a nonprofit, which co-authored the report, that said 682 migrants it assisted in 2022 and 2023 say Border Patrol confiscated medications or medical devices and did not return or replace them. 

The average daily number of individuals in CBP custody ranges between approximately 5,000 and 19,000. 

GAO made recommendations that Border Patrol issue clarifying guidance that addresses the amount of property that facilities should collect and store as well as what types of items may or may not be discarded. It also recommended that Border Patrol monitor such guidance’s implementation and that CBP provide written instructions to individuals upon their release from custody about how to retrieve any lost or left behind personal property.  

DHS said it would implement these recommendations in comments included in the report.