Which Reports on Immigrant Detention Conditions Can We Trust?

The government's own internal report confirms some of the claims made by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others this week.
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On Monday, a congressional delegation visited multiple Customs and Border Protection detention facilities in Texas on a fact-finding mission. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–New York) had just left the first facility when she tweeted that "[o]fficers were keeping women in cells w/ no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets."

Ocasio-Cortez's status as an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump led some to question her claims, and multiple Border Patrol officials stated that the detainees had access to clean water. But two other members of the delegation (representatives Joaquin Castro and Judy Chu) reported hearing similar stories, and, as BuzzFeed News reported, court cases filed by migrants in past years have included allegations of detainees being told to drink out of a toilet bowl to quench their thirst.

The overcrowding of families observed by the OIG on June 11th, 2019, at a Border Patrol facility in Weslaco, Texas.

The overcrowding of families observed by the OIG on June 11th, 2019, at a Border Patrol facility in Weslaco, Texas.

How can the public know who to trust when it comes to the conditions within CBP detention centers? As I reported earlier this month, many advocates describe these facilities as "black boxes," and journalists are rarely allowed inside. In recent weeks, many of the media's reports on squalor and overcrowding in CBP detention conditions have come second-hand from lawyers visiting the facilities as part of ongoing court cases. And, of course, when journalists, members of Congress, or lawyers do get to visit CBP holding centers, the agents at those facilities always have time to prepare for the visits, which are sometimes negotiated weeks ahead of time. As Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about the agents' behavior she witnessed, "This was them on their GOOD behavior in front of members of Congress."

As debate raged over whether the congressional representatives' claims were accurate, an internal government watchdog published a new report on CBP detention facilities on Tuesday. The report from the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security is the result of investigators' visits to five CBP detention facilities in southern Texas in June.

Eighty-eight adult males held in a cell with a maximum capacity of 41, observed by the OIG on June 12th, 2019, at Border Patrol's Fort Brown Station.

Eighty-eight adult males held in a cell with a maximum capacity of 41, observed by the OIG on June 12th, 2019, at Border Patrol's Fort Brown Station.

The OIG's report mirrored many of the claims made by Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress. Investigators raised the alarm of "dangerous" overcrowding: In adult holding cells, detainees had been forced into rooms at double their official capacity, where there was "standing room only." For days at a time, in some cases, immigrants had to stay on their feet shoulder-to-shoulder with others, unable to even sit down. CBP detention is designed for short-term holding (three days or less), but some immigrants had been there for more than a month. In that time, most of them had been unable to shower; CBP agents gave them wet wipes instead. Many detainees had been wearing the same clothes they arrived in for weeks at a time.

The OIG's status as a non-partisan entity lends the report weight and some degree of objectivity. The new report is also consistent with past OIG reports on other CBP detention centers this year, including a report from El Paso last month that found similar overcrowding.

A CBP spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that detainees are given three meals a day and always have access to drinking water. "CBP takes allegations of mistreatment of individuals in our facilities seriously, and reports all allegations to both the DHS Office of the Inspector General and the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility," the official said.

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