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Inspector general, ICE clash over conditions at immigration detention facility in New Mexico

In this July 8, 2019, photo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer watches during an operation in Escondido, Calif. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Homeland Security’s inspector general on Friday called for the immediate evacuation of dozens of immigrants detained at a privately run detention facility in New Mexico, saying it is “critically understaffed” and has unsanitary conditions such as clogged toilets, moldy sinks and water leaks throughout the facility.

“We recommend the Acting Director of ICE immediately relocate all detainees from Torrance County Detention Facility and place no detainees there unless and until the facility ensures adequate staffing and appropriate living conditions,” the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) said in a report.

The report drew a highly unusual rebuke from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility, with both accusing the government watchdog of staging photos and fabricating claims. Filthy sinks and clogged toilets, for instance, were in unoccupied areas undergoing renovations, company officials said.

ICE officials signaled the agency would not withdraw the 60 detainees from the facility, which is down from 176 men when the inspectors arrived for unannounced visits from Feb. 1 to 3. ICE leadership toured the facility on Feb. 28 and verified that it was up to par and that repairs were being made, the officials said.

“We have serious concerns about the accuracy and integrity of this report,” acting ICE chief of staff Jason Houser said in a letter to the inspector general that was also published with the report. “In a number of instances, it appears OIG has falsified or mischaracterized evidence, and has ignored facts presented to it to achieve preconceived conclusions.”

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The OIG denied any wrongdoing and said its team “provided professional, independent oversight and has documented support for all reported findings.”

The dispute over the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, N.M., about 60 miles southeast of Albuquerque, poses a fresh challenge for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The secretary has said that he would not tolerate unsafe conditions for detainees — who are held for civil immigration proceedings only — and he has withdrawn detainees from facilities in Bristol County, Mass., and Irwin County, Ga., for allegedly failing to meet his standards. But Mayorkas did not say Friday how he would handle the dispute over Torrance.

Advocates for immigrants called for the detainees’ release and said the Biden administration has fallen well short of its promise to end for-profit immigration detention centers.

“We are shocked but not surprised by the findings in the OIG report describing dangerous, unsanitary and inhumane conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility,” Rebecca Sheff, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said in a statement. “We call upon ICE to immediately release, not transfer, all the people detained there, so they can reunite with their loved ones and receive the community-based resources and care they urgently need.”

The OIG report outlined the stark disagreements between DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, who was appointed during the Trump administration and confirmed by the Senate in 2019, and the immigration agency that detains and deports tens of thousands of immigrants a year.

The report said severe understaffing at Torrance prevented guards from properly monitoring detainees, threatening their safety. Inspectors said Torrance is supposed to have 245 full-time staff, but in early February almost half the positions were vacant, most in the area of security. The report said CoreCivic receives $2 million a month to house detainees in deportation proceedings, though the population is currently well below its previous capacity of more than 700 detainees.

CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility and others nationwide, confirmed that Torrance has had staff shortages, and said the detainee population has been reduced to ensure appropriate staff-to-detainee ratios during the pandemic.

In one of the most disputed claims in the report, the OIG said detainees were drinking water from a faucet in a common area meant for filling mop buckets.

ICE holds growing numbers of immigrants at private facilities despite Biden campaign promise to end practice

CoreCivic said detainees have access to fresh water elsewhere. The company provided a video to The Washington Post that company officials said shows an inspector guiding a detainee to the sink, after he had washed out his cup, to pose for a photo. Spokesman Steven Owen said the inspectors “acted in a deeply unethical manner” and called for an immediate review of their conduct.

The OIG said it verified its findings with photographs and interviews with detainees.

Torrance failed an inspection by a federal contractor in July 2021, records show, but ICE said the company had since passed other inspections and increased staffing levels substantially. The OIG countered that an internal ICE report found Torrance was understaffed as recently as March 1.

The DHS OIG’s office is also under investigation for undisclosed allegations of misconduct, according to an internal email circulated to the office in January instructing employees to cooperate with the investigation by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), an independent entity in the executive branch. CIGIE and the OIG would not confirm the investigation.

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

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