ICE is not the problem but can be part of the cure

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently released a document regarding the overcrowded conditions on the southern border. The OIG is a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Its job is to “conduct inspections and recommend policies to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in DHS programs and operations.”

The subject line of this July 2 memorandum reads, “Management Alert – DHS Needs to Address Dangerous Overcrowding and Prolonged Detention of Children and Adults in the Rio Grande Valley.” While the memo has fanned into flame the ongoing national conversation over illegal immigration, its actual contents have been underreported. 

Notice, first, that this memo deals with a very specific location. The Rio Grande Valley is a stretch of America’s southern border beginning in El Paso, Texas and following the Rio Grande River eastward toward the Gulf of Mexico. In this area the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency operates several holding facilities. The overcrowding and prolonged detention is taking place in these facilities and only in these facilities.

There are seven facilities in question, two are border crossings, and five are processing facilities. They are not designed or equipped for extended stay. When Border Patrol agents encounter people who have crossed the border illegally, they have the duty to take them to one of these facilities. At the facility, agents are charged to examine each situation and send the individual or the family to the appropriate longer-term facility. 

Adult lawbreakers are transferred within the DHS to longer-term facilities operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Unaccompanied minors are transferred out of DHS to care facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Those that identify as family units need to be vetted to catch any adult sex traffickers posing as parents.

CBP has developed a set of internal standards of treatment for these people called “Transport, Escort, Detention and Search” (TEDS). These standards are not being met, mostly in two areas. First, some facilities are exceeding the occupancy set by the fire marshal. Second, the facilities are not meeting their goals of getting people to the proper location within 72 hours of their detention.

Two general factors have combined to create these conditions. First, there has been an explosion of illegal border crossings in and around El Paso. Second, housing facilities at America’s ICE facilities have reached full capacity. The memo addresses each of these factors specifically.

The explosion of illegal border crossings in the Rio Grande valley is remarkable. From October 2017 to May 2018 there were just shy of 100,000 arrests for illegal crossings. In that same time period of 2018-19, there were over 223,000. For comparison, if seven facilities were able to handle the situation in 2018, it would take 15 facilities to keep up in 2019. 

The situation becomes even more dire when the numbers are broken down. Of the 124-percent increase in total arrests, single adults illegally crossing the border only increased by 32 percent — from 48,240 to 63,507. Unaccompanied children increased by 62 percent — from 14,822 to 23,944. But the real explosion came in family units. This number nearly quadrupled. It went from 36,773 in 2018 to 135, 812 in 2019 — a 269-percent increase. 

These numbers alone are enough to overwhelm the system. But not only are workers at the processing facilities pressured on the receiving end, they are also being hampered by a lack of places to send people once they have determined the proper course of action. 

A complex tangle of laws, policies and court rulings makes it very difficult for the average citizen to understand what CBP workers are up against. For instance, when an unaccompanied minor crosses the border, CBP agents must determine her country of origin. This alone can be challenging in the absence of documentation. Once determined, the CBP is required by law to do one of two things. If a child’s country of origin is Mexico, she must be returned there; if it is any other country in the world, the CBP must locate the child’s nearest relative living in the U.S. and deliver her to that person’s custody. 

Both of these things must take place within 72 hours, according to TEDS standards. If that cannot happen, the child is to be cared for by the HHS until a proper custodian can be located.

In the case of apprehended adults, CBP agents are responsible to hand them over to an ICE facility within the same 72-hour window. ICE is then charged to work through the process of enforcing whatever immigration laws apply to each situation and, meanwhile, to house each detainee properly. 

But here’s the problem. “[B]oth ICE and HHS are operating at or above capacity …[causing] increasing instances of prolonged detention in [CBP] facilities,” according to the memo. Thus, not only has the intake at seven border facilities been more than doubled, their ability to transfer those who have been processed is greatly restricted.

Nationwide, ICE is funded to supply 42,000 beds for people who are in various stages of the enforcement process. In actuality, ICE is providing 54,000 beds (28 percent over capacity). The ICE facility nearest the bottleneck is currently operating at nearly double its capacity. Other detainees are being flown to ICE facilities around the country. Still, there are not enough available beds to relieve the pressure on the CBP facilities in the Rio Grande valley.

Given these realities, there are only two legal ways to address the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. Either the growing stream of illegal crossings needs to be slowed, or ICE must build more facilities to house people who are in the enforcement process. Realistically, the solution will likely involve both.

Evanston may have a role to play in this solution through the construction of additional space for people currently crowded into facilities at the Rio Grande. Even that would address only one aspect of the problem. More must be done.

Before the OIG made its report available to the public, the DHS wrote a formal response that outlined its impossible situation. It noted the emergency measures it is taking to expand housing facilities and informed the Inspector General of the “acute and worsening crisis” at the southern border. 

Despite this information, the OIG’s final report only fulfilled half of its appointed duty. The OIG is to “conduct inspections and recommend policies.” The inspection revealed the problem of which the DHS is acutely aware. Now it is time for the OIG to step up and recommend some realistic policies.

For that matter, it’s not only the OIG that is derelict in this duty. Practically everyone else is, as well. Anyone who stands in the way of barriers to illegal immigration while simultaneously opposing the construction of new ICE facilities is part of the problem.

These self-contradictory political positions put real people in a vise. Customs and Border Protection is not the villain. Neither is it fair to lay the blame on ICE or HHS. 

The humanitarian crisis at our southern border is deliberately manufactured for partisan reasons. This is reprehensible. Our neighbors from Central and South America are being squeezed in a vise by bad actors on both sides of the border. It’s time for people of good will to join together and offer real solutions.


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