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El Paso migrant processing facility ‘dangerously overcrowded,’ DHS Inspector General says

Border Patrol Agents (BPA) assigned to El Paso Sector, El Paso Station (EPT/EPS) apprehended a group of approximately 127 illegal aliens on March 7, 2019. (Jaime Rodriguez Sr./Customs and Border Protection)

An El Paso migrant processing center designed to hold 125 detainees was, at one point, holding 900 in dangerous conditions, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The overcrowding at the processing center at the Paso Del Norte International Bridge in Downtown El Paso requires “immediate attention,” the report states, warning of the potential for violence.

The report released Thursday by the department’s Office of Inspector General states that an inspection of five U.S. Border Patrol stations and two ports of entry in the El Paso Sector revealed “dangerous holding conditions” for migrants at the processing center.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in the El Paso Sector directed all questions to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Officials there declined to comment.

The report was released a day after U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso apprehended the largest group ever encountered illegally entering the U.S.

The report states that the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center “does not have the capacity to hold the hundreds currently in custody safely, and has held the majority of its detainees longer than the 72 hours generally permitted” under CBP’s Transport, Escort, Detention and Search standards.

The processing center has a capacity to hold 125 detainees, although the center was housing 756 and 900 detainees on site when officials went to inspect the center May 8 and May 9, the report states.

“We observed dangerous overcrowding at the facility with single adults held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees,” Inspector General officials said.

According to the report, Border Patrol agents told inspectors that “some of the detainees had been held in standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks.”

On May 7, inspectors found 756 detainees at the center, with more than 500 having been there for more than 72 hours — and with 33 having been at the center for more than two weeks, the report states.

Another unannounced visit by inspectors the next day revealed about 900 detainees at the center.

“During our visits, we observed the triage of hundreds of detainees outside in the PDT parking lot,” the report states. PDT is how the report identifies the processing center.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, demanded that the Department of Homeland Security and Congress act quickly to address the situation.

“Today’s report is alarming and publicly confirms what I have witnessed firsthand for months: the conditions of our processing facilities strip migrants of their dignity and represent a serious danger to the health and safety of migrants and agents,” Escobar said in a statement. “As an El Pasoan and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I urge the Department of Homeland Security to employ alternatives to detention and work alongside advocates, local stakeholders, and Congress to immediately institute an action plan to ensure our agents and facilities are equipped to address our immigration challenges in safe and humane conditions.”

Report urges coordinated approach for long-term detention

The report concludes that the Department of Homeland Security “needs a coordinated approach to managing long-term detention.”

“Although CBP headquarters management has been aware of the situation at PDT for months and detailed staff to assist with custody management, DHS has not identified a process to alleviate issues with overcrowding at PDT,” the report states.

The first recommendation in the report is to take immediate steps to alleviate the overcrowding at the El Paso Del Norte Bridge Processing Center.

In a memorandum sent by U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials to the Office of Inspector General in response to the report, DHS agreed with the recommendation and stated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is building a “500-person holding capacity soft-sided structure at (the) El Paso Station.”

They go on to say in the memo, which is attached to the report published online by the Office of Inspector General, that an additional tent site to house migrants will be constructed by July 31 and that a Centralized Processing Center in the El Paso area will open within 18 months.

The Office of Inspector General then responds to DHS’s memo, stating that changes need to be made immediately due to “an immediate risk to the health and safety of detainees and DHS employees.”

Office of Inspector General officials also stated that “Border Patrol management on site said there is an ongoing concern that rising tensions among detainees could turn violent. Dangerous overcrowding among single adults in PDT requires immediate action.”

The officials with the office concluded that DHS officials did not fully address their concerns and said they will leave the case open until action is taken to deal with the overcrowding.

“While we consider the actions outlined in DHS’ response to be partially responsive to the recommendation, the recommendation will remain unresolved and open until DHS offers an immediate corrective action plan to address the dangerous overcrowding at PDT,” the officials said in the report.

Astrid Dominguez, director of the ACLU Border Rights Center said in a news release that the ACLU has previously filed complaints based on the treatment of migrants and that DHS must act on the “egregious human rights abuses that are occurring on its watch.” However, Dominguez criticized the report for not giving enough specifics on how what steps need to be taken to address lackluster medical treatment and inadequate food and water at the facility.

“We demand that at a minimum, CBP immediately comply with its own rules on protecting the lives, health and dignity of the people in their custody,” Dominguez said. “Detention will never be the solution. DHS needs to invest in proven alternatives to detention. We cannot stand for this inhumane treatment of those seeking refuge in our country.”

Many more migrants coming in

According to Customs and Border Protection officials, the agency has more migrants in custody than Border Patrol agents patrolling the Southwest border.

U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector Acting Supervisory Agent Fidel Baca said the El Paso Sector has had 135,000 apprehensions this fiscal year, compared with 17,000 at this same time last year.

“We are averaging over 1,200 apprehensions a day,” Baca said.

There are 2,400 agents working in the Border Patrol El Paso sector.

Large number of migrants strains Border Patrol resources

The main issue currently hurting the agency is the amount of resources the agency has to use to process the migrants, Baca said.

U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended the largest group yet of migrants illegally crossing into the U.S. Wednesday in El Paso.

The group of 1,036 migrants were found Wednesday night crossing a border wall between the Bridge of the Americas and the Stanton Street Bridge near Downtown El Paso, U.S. Border Patrol officials said.

“With this large group we encountered on May 29, we are talking about more than 1,000 people,” Baca said. “Just to get their biographical information — simplest information such as name, date of birth and country of origin — that takes quite a bit of time just to get that little information. Why? Because it is over 1,000 people.”

He added, “As soon we apprehend them, we have to move them because we can’t just keep them by the river. So, we move them to a Border Patrol facility. Moving over a thousand people is going to take a lot of vehicles and a lot of personnel. … This is all resources — manpower, vehicles — we have to use.”

The number of migrants crossing illegally every day is hurting national security, Baca said.

“We have 10 Border Patrol stations (in the El Paso Sector), and just to process this single group of over 1,000, we had to use eight of the stations. That’s the big thing — the resources. We are trying to catch up with this influx of apprehensions and its tough because of the shortage of resources.”

Threat to border security seen

Baca said the El Paso Sector is getting help from agents in northern sectors and other government branches, including the U.S. Coast Guard, but the agency is still struggling to deal with the high influx.

“We are getting assistance. However — just the sheer numbers — the assistance we are getting in not enough to keep up,” Baca said. “Our border security is suffering because of this.”

A video posted on the U.S. Border Patrol’s official Twitter account shows the large group of people crossing into the U.S. on Wednesday night through the border fence. The video, which has a timestamp of 3:23 a.m., shows the group crossing a mostly dry Rio Grande, go up a levee and then through a hole in the border fence.

Within minutes, the group is across the border and walking along the border fence on the U.S. side. The video, which appears to have been taken by surveillance cameras posted along the border fence, does not show the group being apprehended by agents.

The migrants were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, officials said. The group included 934 family members, 63 unaccompanied children and 39 single adults.

U.S. Border Patrol officials said this is the largest group to ever encountered illegally entering the U.S.

“The apprehension of 1,036 individuals in a single group — the largest group ever encountered by Border Patrol agents — demonstrates the severity of the border security and humanitarian crisis at our Southwest border,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Robert E. Perez said in a statement. “The dedicated men and women of CBP, and in particular the U.S Border Patrol, are doing their very best every day to address the influx of family units and unaccompanied children.”

The migrants were taken into custody at about 4 a.m. for processing and initial medical screening, officials said.

The Border Patrol El Paso Sector has continued to see a large number of migrants crossing into the U.S.

On Memorial Day, agents detained more than 2,200 migrants in the El Paso Sector, which includes West Texas and all of New Mexico.

The largest group on Memorial Day was more than 400 migrants who were detained near Bowie High School in South El Paso.

Agents also detained more than 200 migrants in a separate group on Memorial Day near the Antelope Wells Port of Entry in the bootheel of New Mexico.

The U.S.-Mexico border has seen a large influx of migrants — many seeking asylum — crossing in large groups.

Border Patrol officials said the agency is on pace to apprehend more than 1 million migrants this fiscal year, which started in October. So far, agents have apprehended more than 500,000 migrants. In May, agents detained 45 large groups totaling more than 7,900 migrants, officials said.

Border Patrol agents have encountered 180 large groups on the Southwest border so far this fiscal year, officials said.

“Processing groups of this size places a tremendous strain on CBP’s resources and operations,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said in a statement on Twitter. “The dramatic increase of large groups pulls frontline personnel to conduct humanitarian efforts and draws resources away from frontline enforcement — placing border security at risk.


© 2019 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.