WASHINGTON (CN) – Expounding on a report that detailed a "ticking time bomb" at detention centers on the southern border, a Department of Homeland Security watchdog Monday told Congress that overcrowding at federal facilities has reached unprecedented levels.
"Our inspections team, some of whom have been doing this for a decade, had never seen anything like this before," Diana Shaw, with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, told lawmakers Monday.
During a hearing Monday evening before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, Shaw discussed a report her office released earlier this month detailing conditions at facilities in the Rio Grande Valley where U.S. Customs and Border Protection holds people who have entered the U.S. without the proper documentation.
Shaw, the assistant inspector general for special reviews and evaluations, told lawmakers that the team that conducted unannounced visits to the CBP facilities covered in the report immediately passed along pictures and details of their trip, and expressed concern about the state of the facilities.
CBP facilities such as the ones detailed in the report are only meant to hold people for short periods of time while they are processed, but the Inspector General's report noted that hundreds of people, including children, had been kept in the detention centers for much longer than they were supposed to be.
Shaw said Monday the facilities are experiencing "dangerous" overcrowding, primarily due to a swell of immigrants arriving at the southern border. She said that CBP does not have anywhere to transfer people, because this influx of immigrants has filled up other federal facilities that are designed to hold detainees for longer periods of time.
The conditions at the facilities have violated CBP's standards, Shaw said. Some of these violations include infrequent showers and hot meals for detainees, as well as packed cells that are so crowded that people cannot lie down.
The committee used large screens in the hearing room to display pictures from the report that showed people standing in packed cells or lying on the floor covered in reflective emergency blankets.
Shaw said CBP agents were seen treating people held in the facilities in a professional manner, but the overcrowding was putting stress on both the agents and the individuals in custody. She said the conditions threatened the safety of agents and detainees, especially due to the risk of the spread of infectious diseases.
Shaw's testimony was limited to the facilities that Inspector General's Office staff visited, but she said the office is working on a more comprehensive look at the conditions of facilities along the border.
She was unable to give specific recommendations when lawmakers pressed her on how to fix the situation in the facilities.
Democrats blamed the conditions entirely on the Trump administration, arguing CBP could release many of the people held in the facilities to help alleviate the overcrowding, but has chosen not to do so. They also pushed back on Republican claims that the conditions are primarily caused by lack of funding, saying the administration has not improved conditions in the facilities even after Congress gave it more money to do so.
"I would like to remind my colleagues that there was an emergency supplemental passed in February, there was another emergency supplemental passed a few months later and things haven't changed," Representative Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said Monday. "And so for any of us it's not simply a question of resources, it's a question of policy."
Republicans argued the administration has no good options, blaming the problem on Congress' inability to change immigration laws or provide more beds in facilities that are meant to hold people for longer periods of time.
"If [the Department of Health and Human Services] doesn't have any shelter space for a child in CBP custody, I don't understand what they're supposed to do, if there's not a place to take them," said Representative Gregory Steube, R-Fla.
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