Office of the Inspector General staff counted 88 men held in a cell designed for a maximum capacity of 41 at the Border Patrol's Fort Brown Station, Brownsville, Texas, June 12, 2019. (DHS/OIG)
HOUSTON - A “management alert” with images of detained migrants pleading for help in South Texas was released Tuesday from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.
The 16-page report found that the department needs to address the “dangerous overcrowding” and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley and its purpose to notify the DHS of “urgent issues that require immediate attention and action,” the Acting Inspector General Jennifer Costello wrote in a memorandum to Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
Auditors from the OIG visited five facilities and two ports of entry in South Texas' Rio Grande Valley, where more people cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally than any other section.
Several photos included in the OIG’s management alert showed the crowded conditions of the migrants. In one photo, one of 88 men in a cell meant for 41 presses a piece of cardboard against the window, with the word "help."
In another, a man lowers his head and clasps his hands as if in prayer. And in a third, a woman wearing a surgical mask presses both of her hands against the glass.
“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,” the report said.
The U.S. government auditors visited the facilities in South Texas where migrant adults and children who crossed the nearby border with Mexico are processed and detained.
The “management alert” quoted one senior manager as calling the situation “a ticking time bomb.”
"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," the report said.
Around 8,000 people were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Rio Grande Valley in early June, when auditors visited the facilities. Around 7,500 people are detained there now, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The Border Patrol made 132,887 apprehensions in May, including 84,542 adults and children traveling together. With long-term facilities for adults and children at capacity, President Donald Trump's administration has said it has to hold people in unsuitable Border Patrol facilities for much longer than the 72 hours normally allowed by law.
In a statement included in the report, DHS blamed "an acute and worsening crisis" on the southern border and said it had tried to expand detention capacity and improve the conditions under which migrant families are held.
“Our immigration system is not equipped to accommodate a migration pattern like the one we are experiencing now,” the DHS said. “The current migration flow and resulting humanitarian crisis are rapidly overwhelming the ability of the Federal Government to respond.”
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
Immigrant advocates blame the Trump administration for refusing to promptly release families, children and people seeking asylum, leading to increased numbers of people detained.
The report details several potential violations of federal law or Border Patrol standards.
Two facilities inspected had not provided children access to hot meals until the week that auditors arrived. Some adults were only receiving bologna sandwiches, causing constipation and in some cases requiring medical attention.
Of 2,669 children detained by the Border Patrol in the region, 826, or 31 percent, had been held there longer than 72 hours.
More than 50 children under the age of 7 were waiting to be moved to long-term facilities, some of them for more than two weeks. In one photo, women and children appeared to be sleeping on the ground under Mylar blankets.
Many adults hadn't showered despite having been held for as long as a month. Some were being given wet wipes to clean themselves.
The report also detailed "security incidents" at multiple facilities, including one case in which detained migrants refused to re-enter their cell after it had been cleaned. People detained have also in some cases clogged toilets with their Mylar blankets and socks in order to be let out of the cells.
The report's authors recognized "the extraordinary challenges" faced by CBP and credited DHS for trying to more quickly process the children unaccompanied by a parent. Advocates note that many children deemed unaccompanied entered the U.S. with another adult relative such as an aunt or an uncle but were separated.
The report was released a day after a group of Democratic congressmen visited the Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, on the other side of the state, where lawyers previously reported some 250 children being detained in squalid conditions.
One of the congressmen, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, alleged that a woman told them she was instructed to drink water from a toilet.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said top Homeland Security leaders would testify before his committee next week on the treatment of migrant children.
"The committee needs to hear directly from the heads of these agencies as soon as possible in light of the almost daily reports of abuse and defiance," Cummings said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.