Border agents feared riots by migrants at overcrowded station: U.S. government documents

WASHINGTON (Reuters): U.S. agents at an El Paso, Texas border station feared riots by migrants being held in overcrowded and unsanitary cells and were “embarrassed” and “frustrated” by the detainees’ conditions, according to documents from an internal government watchdog.

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) inspectors found on a May 7 visit that more than half of the 756 immigrants being held at the facility were kept outside, and those inside were in cells packed at five times their capacity, the documents showed.

At the time, the watchdog urged officials to take immediate steps to alleviate “dangerous overcrowding” after it found some adult detainees being held in “standing-room-only conditions” for days or weeks.

Border Patrol agents “remained armed in the holding areas because of their concerns with the overcrowding that potentially could result in volatile situations (riots etc.)” or hunger strikes, the documents attached to the Office of Inspector General report revealed.

The documents, which supported the information published in the May report, were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from the website MuckRock and first reported by NBC News on Monday.

U.S. President Donald Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his administration, but officials say a renewed crush of mostly Central Americans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has strained resources.

Government inspectors saw migrants standing on toilets because there was not enough room in cells and other examples of unsanitary conditions and high temperatures, the documents said.

Border Patrol supervisory agents also said “there is a high incidence of illness among their agents,” according to the documents.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, and falls within DHS, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But the U.S. government responded to the report in a letter to the watchdog that was included in the supporting documents. The situation at the border “represents an acute and worsening crisis” and the surging numbers of migrants is overwhelming the agencies, the letter said.

The government put up a tent in the El Paso sector to deal with the overflow and an additional structure with the capacity for 800 people is expected to be in use by July 2019, the response said.

Trump has blamed Congress for failing to change immigration laws his administration says are encouraging migrants to come to the United States. U.S. lawmakers last week passed a $4.6 billion aid package to address the surge of people.

Conditions at U.S. facilities holding migrants have become a flashpoint in recent weeks after lawyers last month raised the alarm over squalid conditions facing hundreds of children at another facility near El Paso, Texas.

At a news conference on Friday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan denied the lawyers’ allegations and defended operations at the facility in Clint, Texas.

McAleenan on Monday said he would be traveling to San Salvador, El Salvador for a two-day visit to discuss “the root causes of irregular migration” and will meet Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Palmerola, Honduras.

It was the second such visit to Central America in less than a week, after he traveled to Guatemala on Wednesday for meetings that included discussions of “third safe country” agreement, which could potentially limit who could apply for asylum in the United States.

Many Central American families arriving at the southwest border claim fear of return to their home countries and seek asylum in U.S. immigration courts.

Immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador traveling by land mostly pass through Guatemala on their way to Mexico and the United States. The Trump administration is seeking a deal under which all asylum seekers who reach Guatemala must ask for refuge there, and not the United States.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Andy Sullivan and Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Grant McCool)

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