In early June, inspectors with the Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog visited five facilities where migrants are detained in the Rio Grande Valley.
Those visits to the Brownsville Fort Brown, Weslaco and McAllen Border Patrol Stations, and the Border Patrol McAllen Centralized Processing Center and Donna Processing Center culminated in a 13-page report containing images of migrants packed into holding cells that quickly made their way around the world.
In one image, a man held at the Fort Brown Border Patrol Station presses a cardboard sign with the word “HELP” as migrants signaled to the inspectors from a cell holding 88 adults that was designed to hold 41.
“We ended our site visit at one Border Patrol facility early because our presence was agitating an already difficult situation,” the report states. “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.”
This was at the Fort Brown Border Patrol Station.
Meanwhile, in early June while the DHS inspectors were in the Rio Grande Valley inspecting the facilities, immigration attorneys began raising the same concerns about dangerous overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in federal lawsuits seeking the immediate release of migrants from custody.
Since then, those attorneys have filed four habeas corpus lawsuits on behalf of 14 migrants held by Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley for more than a week and possibly up to 40 days, complaining of unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, sickness and that the migrants are being held without charges and without access to attorneys.
The lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the migrants, who are all from Central America, by family members.
On Tuesday, the attorneys filed the fourth lawsuit on behalf of Santos Zuniga, of El Salvador; Jorge Landaverde, of El Salvador; and Hugo Flander, of El Salvador.
The filing coincided with the latest DHS Office of Inspector General report released on Tuesday, which found that DHS needs to address dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley.
The photos in that report were quickly published by national media outlets and shared all over social media, bringing intense national attention back to the Rio Grande Valley, much like in June and July of last year, when the area was the focus of national attention in the wake of zero-tolerance immigration prosecutions and the separation of families, which is ongoing.
The allegations in the latest lawsuit, along with the three previous lawsuits, mirror findings from the DHS-OIG inspectors and the attorneys have asked a federal judge to designate the latest litigation as a class action.
The petitioners are being subjected to inhumane treatment by being packed into overcrowded cells and detained for weeks without adequate food, water, sanitation facilities or access to legal counsel, according to the lawsuit.
“Petitioners allege that the food Respondents provide is grossly inadequate, the ‘drinking’ water smells and is heavily chlorinated, the toilets are unsanitary, showering or bathing facilities, and the ability to make phone calls are virtually non-existent, medical assistance is restricted and often denied, and they must sleep on the floor or even standing up, in some cases, next to over flowing toilets,” the lawsuit states.
That lawsuit, however, goes farther than the DHS-OIG report with allegations that Border Patrol agents are coercing migrants into signing false statements in order to transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities and that migrants might be being held with other migrants who may have violent criminal histories, among other allegations.
“The conditions in these holding cells are dangerous and inhumane, particular if CBP detains in the same cells individuals whom they know or have reason to believe have committed crimes other than (misdemeanor illegal entry),” the lawsuit states.
The immigration attorneys also allege that the deprivation of basic necessities is resulting in some cases of migrants making false statements about ages to avoid treatment as juveniles, or other documents, possibly waiving rights under the Immigration and Nationality Act, including the right to apply for asylum.
Specifically, the attorneys allege CBP “is arbitrarily refusing to accept such evidence as the child’s birth certificate, arbitrarily without any factual basis accusing the child of having a false birth certificate, and without obtaining confirmation of same from the Consulate of the country, of which the child claims to be a native and citizen,” the lawsuit states. “Instead, CBP is holding such children in facilities with adults, under the same horrendous conditions, for days or weeks, until the child falsely ‘admits’ to being eighteen years of age, and is then transferred to ICE custody.”
Of the first three lawsuits filed on behalf of migrants, three migrants were transferred to an ICE facility in Raymondville where conditions are better. Four other migrants passed credible fear interviews and will be allowed to seek asylum. Their location is not known by the attorneys. And another four migrants were transferred within hours of the lawsuit being filed and the attorneys do not know if they passed credible fear interviews.
As for the DHS-OIG report that directs Border Patrol to address the overcrowding, a DHS official said the overcrowding is a result of an acute and worsening crisis on the border.
“Our immigration system is not equipped to accommodate a migration pattern like the one we are experiencing now,” the official wrote.
According to the official, in May, an average of 4,600 people crossed the southern border illegally or arrived at ports of entry without proper documents each day. In May 2017, that number was 700, according to the official.
“The current migration flow and the resulting humanitarian crisis are rapidly overwhelming the ability of the Federal Government to respond,” the official said.
In March and April, the official told the DHS-OIG that CBP encountered 112,000 people crossing the border illegally or presenting themselves at ports of entry without proper documentation.
That official also says CBP facilities are at peak capacity due to record numbers of unaccompanied children awaiting placements with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which contracts with nonprofits to hold migrant children.
As of June 8, 2,800 children were detained in Border Patrol stations, such as the facility in Clint, Texas, where the Associated Press reported how children were taking care of toddlers and infants in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.
By June 25, the official said the number of unaccompanied children held by Border Patrol was reduced to 1,000.
Border Patrol also told the DHS-OIG that it is overcrowded because it cannot transfer detainees to the ICE Port Isabel Detention Center because that facility is also at capacity.
CBP also said it is trying to reduce overcrowding with tent detention facilities in Donna and El Paso, with a third scheduled to be operational by July 29.
The DHS-OIG report, however, said while it recognized the extraordinary challenges CBP faces and welcomes the information that DHS reduced the number of unaccompanied children, the inspectors are still concerned DHS is not taking sufficient steps to address prolonged detention of single adults in CBP custody.