With an executive order the first week of his presidency, instructing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to expand the detention of migrants apprehended while crossing the border, Donald Trump set the stage not only for ending the policy of allowing migrants to remain in the U.S. interior while awaiting court proceedings, but for increasingly dangerous and unhealthy conditions in both government-run and privately operated detention centers.
Photos of overcrowded children and adults behind metal cages and reports of filth, illness, and untimely deaths have generated outrage alongside the widespread anger over the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy that separated children from families. Members of Congress, federal inspectors and other officials made or tried to make numerous visits to immigrant detention centers run by CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF). In June 2018, Sen. Jeff Merkley said he was shocked by what he saw after a visit to a Texas center for unaccompanied immigrant children — a visit that multiple DHS officials, including then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, dismissed as a “Hill stunt” in emails obtained by American Oversight.
Throughout 2019, alarming new details continued to come out. A January 2019 DHS inspector general report on ICE detention contractors found “serious deficiencies such as significant understaffing, failure to provide sufficient mental health observation, and inadequate monitoring of detainees with criminal histories.” The report also noted that the inspector general had “no way of verifying whether any of these deficiencies have been corrected.” In June of that year, a legal team interviewed 60 children at a Border Patrol facility near El Paso, describing neglect and inadequate food, water and sanitation. One visiting physician described “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day” at a CBP facility in Texas. Members of Congress who visited a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Tex., reported being told by detained women that they were told to drink from toilet bowls due to a lack of running water.
Such conditions are primed for the spread of serious illness. Between September 2018 and August 2019, more than 700 migrants were infected with mumps after being exposed to the disease in detention centers, and even with the arrival of flu season in late 2019, Customs and Border Protection refused to administer free vaccines to migrants. At least three minors have died from the flu while in custody, including one teenage boy who, as revealed in video footage reported on by ProPublica in early December, was held in a small concrete holding cell, where he passed away after not receiving proper medical attention — video footage that doesn’t match the Border Patrol’s official account.
Moreover, the process ICE uses for providing medical care, called Medical Payment Authorization Request, or MedPAR, needs serious work. Requests for off-site care are approved by ICE staff, relying only on the reviewer’s “professional judgment.” A 2016 government report on the system said that it lacked “specific written clinical guidance on which to base approval decisions.” American Oversight is investigating such deficiencies in care for detained migrants as well as the conditions in facilities — from allegations of abuse to official communications with private contractors.
In September 2019, American Oversight published hundreds of photos we obtained — including photos of living areas and of handwritten complaint forms — that shed more light on the conditions inside detention centers for unaccompanied migrant children, which are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. You can read more about that here.
In June 2019, American Oversight sued the Department of Homeland Security for records of communications related to the deaths of individuals detained by ICE and the Border Patrol, including the communications of senior officials like Kirstjen Nielsen and Kevin McAleenan, the former secretary and former acting secretary of DHS.