Protesters outside the Department of Homeland Security processing center in El Paso in June. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times/AP)
Columnist

Did Immigration and Customs Enforcement turn a blind eye to abusive conditions confronting thousands of immigrants jailed without being convicted of a crime?

Apparently so, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.

Instead of using all the tools available to hold operators of immigrant detention facilities accountable for rampant health and safety violations, ICE did not impose financial penalties when it could have. Agency officials gave operators a pass in many cases by allowing them to avoid inmate facility requirements, the inspector general found.

The inspector general’s review determined “ICE does not adequately hold detention facility contractors accountable for not meeting performance standards.”

Despite a failure to meet the standards in thousands of documented cases, “between October 1, 2015, and June 30, 2018, ICE imposed financial penalties on only two occasions,” according to the report.

ICE essentially told jailers who failed to meet it standards — no problem.

“Instead of holding facilities accountable through financial penalties,” the inspector general added, “ICE issued waivers to facilities with deficient conditions, seeking to exempt them from having to comply with certain detention standards.”

The report is enough to make ICE look like it stands for “Ignore, Conceal and Evade.”

Not so, say DHS officials. They argue the report provides a misleading picture. They disagree with some findings and insisted contracting tools are not the only means of holding jailers responsible.

“U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement remains committed to providing a safe and secure environment for all those in its custody,” ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said by email. “ICE has a strong record of holding detention facilities accountable when deficiencies are identified …. If the provider is not performing or is performing below standards or expectations, ICE can terminate the agreement or reduce the population levels immediately. This is a very powerful tool to ensure compliance and to hold a contractor accountable.”

But how often is that tool used?

Bourke couldn’t say.

A response included in the report from Stephen A. Roncone, ICE’s chief financial officer, also was not definite. “There are multiple facilities where ICE terminated the agreement, removed all detainees from the facility, or scaled back its usage of the facility based on non-compliance issues,” he wrote. “This is an effective tool to hold a contractor accountable.”

Multiple could be three or four. It could be more. ICE doesn’t say.

The detainees were not sentenced for a crime. They were in civil custody, waiting for processing and possible deportation. More than 35,000 detainees were in 211 facilities at the end of fiscal 2017. Only five of the jails, with less than 10 percent of the population, were owned by ICE. The report refers to “detention facility contractors,” but many were local and county jails.

Of 106 contracts the inspector general reviewed, just 28 included the “quality assurance surveillance plan” needed for recommending financial penalties. Furthermore, “ICE has no formal policies and procedures about the waiver process and has allowed officials without clear authority to grant waivers,” according to the inspector general. What’s more, the waivers might violate federal regulations.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he is “particularly concerned by the fact that many of these waivers were issued in cases that directly affected the health and safety of detainees. ICE must address this safety gap and ensure that its detainees are housed in facilities that are safe and meet its own performance standards.”

At the 106 facilities, more than 14,000 “deficiencies” were found during the review period that ended in June. “These deficiencies include those that jeopardize the safety and rights of detainees, such as failing to notify ICE about sexual assaults,” the inspector general found.

When waivers are granted, they can last forever.

“Without formal waiver guidance and review processes,” the inspector general’s report said, “ICE may be indefinitely allowing contract facilities to circumvent detention standards intended to assure the safety, security, and rights of detainees.”

Waiver examples include authorizing facility officials to use CS gas which is “10 times more toxic” than pepper spray. Another waiver permitted dangerous detainees with serious criminal histories to commingle among those with minor or only immigration violations, placing them in peril.

Moreover, the ICE employees who conduct on-site inspections of detention facilities are overworked. Their “unachievable workloads,” the report said, allow violations “to go unaddressed and may lead to dangerous detention conditions.”

The catalogue of significant failings in jailing of migrants and asylum seekers “often amounts to inhumane and harmful conditions,” said Eleni Bakst of Human Rights First, an advocacy organization that has studied the immigrant detainee issue.

“From insufficient or outright denials of health care to dirty clothing to unclean water, Human Rights First has witnessed firsthand how ICE is failing to ensure adequate conditions and standards in immigration detention centers,” she said. “This new report highlights the need for increased accountability mechanisms by documenting egregious violations which were never reported or for which detention contractors faced no penalties.”

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