Poor conditions including overcrowding, flu outbreaks, and a lack of clean clothes are just par for the course at an El Paso border station, according to a report released Monday by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General. In the report, border patrol argues that these conditions are necessary to stem the flow of migrants to the United States.
The report, first obtained by NBC News, detailed the conditions during a May 7 tour of a border station in the El Paso sector and found that only four showers were available for 756 immigrants. Additionally, over half of the immigrants were being held outside in the Texas heat, while the immigrants inside were being kept in cells at over five times their capacity. One cell meant for a maximum of 35 people held 155 adult males with only one toilet and sink. The cell was so overcrowded that the internal temperatures reached over 80 degrees and the men were unable to lay down to sleep.
While border patrol processing centers are only meant for temporary stays of up to 36 hours, some migrants at this facility in El Paso reported stays of over 30 days.
“With limited access to showers and clean clothing, detainees were wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks,” the report said.
None of this information, however, was new to DHS. The agency had the information about the conditions at this border patrol station for months and described it in the report as “chaos.” In spite of this, nothing was done. In fact, the report clearly outlines that the poor conditions thousands are facing at the hands of the U.S. government are actually the desired outcome.
“[Border Patrol] recognize[s] they have a humanitarian issue with detaining single adults for so long, but believe if they do not have a consequence delivery system, either prosecution or ICE detention, the flow will increase,” the report states, laying bare the Trump administration’s true motives: maintaining horrible conditions at border patrol facilities is necessary to deter immigrants from coming to the United States.
This logic on deterrence isn’t exactly anything new. The Obama administration began its expansion of family detention in 2014, and migrant children and families were routinely subject to freezing cold holding cells — nicknamed “hieleras” or “ice boxes” in Spanish. For example, in 2013 when 18-year-old Alexy Luis Lopez complained to officers about the temperature, one told him that maybe he should “think two times before trying to cross again.”
“Border Patrol seems to think these brutal conditions, and the human suffering that results, will deter immigration, but the fact is that many of these people are fleeing persecution and violence, reuniting with family, or are themselves U.S. citizens,” said James Duff Lyall, an attorney with ACLU of Arizona, back in 2015. “These policies and practices serve no legitimate purpose, violate the U.S. Constitution, and offend basic American values.”
What is different this time around, however, is the severity of the conditions and the government’s insistence on this being the state of things.
“This is not unavoidable,” R. Andrew Free, a civil rights and immigration lawyer from Nashville, told ThinkProgress. “This is not something that is coming as a surprise to CBP leadership either. This is a phenomenon that they are well aware of. They even called it ‘chaos’ and are choosing to continue it.”
The government hasn’t kept its position on the conditions of immigration detention quiet. Immigration attorneys allowed inside a Border Patrol facility near El Paso in Clint, Texas last week, reported children taking care of other children and living in soiled clothing. Lawyers for the federal government argued before the Ninth Circuit Court on June 18 that agencies like CBP have no responsibility to provide toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap to migrant children in their care.
“It’s within everyone’s common understanding, that if you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary,” U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima said. “Wouldn’t everybody agree with that? Do you agree with that?”
“Well, I think it’s…. I think those are… there’s fair reason to find that those things… may be part of safe and sanitary…” Department of Justice attorney Sara Fabian responded.
“Not maybe! Are… a part. What do you mean maybe? You mean there are circumstances when a person doesn’t need to have a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap? For days?” asked Tashima.
“What you’re saying is that the agreement is so vague that it’s almost unenforceable,” Tashima said.
“To some extent, yes, your honor,” Fabian conceded.
Under a 1997 court judgment referred to as the Flores settlement, the U.S. government is required to provide a certain level of humane care to children in its custody, including that any facility must be “safe and sanitary.” Flores requires that immigrant children “accompanied” by parents have to be released within 20 days. The administration has argued that the order is too restrictive and must be overturned so that more families could be detained together for longer. Implicit in that position is that indefinite family detention will also serve as a deterrence.
There is no evidence, however, to suggest the administration’s assertion that failing to provide humane accommodations within detention facilities deters migration.
Since news of the conditions at several facilities became public, there has been a steady drop in the number of apprehensions at the border. While the administration is taking credit for the decrease through its border policies and tough stance on Mexico, it is in line with historic patterns of migration, which tend to decrease in the summer months due to the heat.