Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s still Trump’s America or Biden’s America when it comes to immigration and immigrants. Wednesday, March 16, was yet another day when it was simply #hardtotell.
On the 16th, the Office of Inspector General overseeing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a damning report calling for the immediate evacuation of dozens of immigrants detained for civil immigration proceedings only at the Torrance County Detention Facility, a privately-run detention facility in Estancia, New Mexico about 60 miles southeast of Albuquerque.
The OIG’s office said that from Feb. 1 to Feb. 3, 2022, they conducted an unannounced, in-person inspection of Torrance to determine whether it complied with the 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), as revised in December 2016.
At the start of the inspection, the report said, Torrance housed a total of 176 male ICE detainees and gets paid approximately $2 million a month to house the ICE detainees.
But the report stated that during the inspections, they found critical facility staffing shortages and unsanitary living conditions that have led to health and safety risks for the detainees.
According to the report, detainees are being housed in unsanitary living conditions, such as with clogged toilets, moldy sinks and water leaks and they include photographs of the claims.
In one of the most shocking claims in the report, the OIG said detainees were drinking water from a faucet in a common area meant for filling mop buckets.
The report also said severe understaffing at Torrance prevented guards from properly monitoring detainees, threatening their safety. 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.
“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 OIG said in the report.
Surprisingly, the Biden administration’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Tae Johnson responded with a highly unusual rebuke, reminiscent of the Trump era.
They claimed, along with CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility, that the government watchdog staged the photos and fabricated the claims.
Worst was that ICE refused to comply with the OIG’s recommendation. As Trump would, they signaled the agency would not withdraw the now 60 detainees from the facility, down from 176 men when the inspectors visited last month.
They also claimed that the facility was up to par and that repairs were being made.
“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.”
But the OIG has denied any wrongdoing and said its team “provided professional, independent oversight and has documented support for all reported findings.” The watchdog said it verified its findings with photographs and interviews with detainees.
Interestingly, Torrance failed an inspection by a federal contractor in July 2021, records show, but ICE has claimed that since then, the company has 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.
So far, the immigrant born Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has not weighed in on the issue or said if he will agree with the OIG recommendation. In the past he has said he would not tolerate unsafe conditions for detainees and has withdrawn detainees from facilities in Bristol County, Mass., and Irwin County, Ga., for allegedly failing to meet his standards.
Advocates, however, slammed the administration for yet again failing immigrants and falling well short of its big once-upon-a-time 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.”
It is hard to comprehend why ICE would denounce the OIG’s report and not move the detainees out of the facility given the conditions. These are not mass murderers, but immigrants detained for civil immigration proceedings. They deserve to be treated with human dignity and respect.
The writer is publisher of NewsAmericasNow.com – The Black Immigrant Daily News.