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CBP 'not running concentration camps': Border chief responds to reports of overcrowding

Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan testifies before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, July 30, 2019. (CNN Newsource)
Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan testifies before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, July 30, 2019. (CNN Newsource)
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The acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection lashed out at critics who have compared Border Patrol facilities with Nazi concentration camps at a Tuesday hearing on the poor conditions at CBP facilities.

Mark Morgan testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee alongside Jennifer Costello, the deputy inspector general within the Department of Homeland Security who helped document the substandard conditions for children and dangerous overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities. Morgan welcomed the inspector general's report but fired back at members of Congress and the media for fueling the bitter debate over immigration with "false" and "overheated" attacks on his agency.

"The men and women of CBP are not running concentration camps, making those in our custody drink from toilets, nor denying them access to toothbrushes," Morgan told lawmakers Tuesday morning. "That is simply not true."

"This is the kind of irresponsible rhetoric that they have to ensure from the media and even some of our own congressional leaders. It's unjust and does nothing to help us resolve one of the most divisive issues in our country," he stated.

Defending CBP's workforce, Morgan argued that the "demonizing of law enforcement professionals must stop." He continued that the public attacks on CBP agents "are demoralizing" and "deteriorate the public's understanding and perception" of the humanitarian and security crisis at the border.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York as well as a handful of other Democratic congressmen denounced CBP facilities as "concentration camps." More than two dozen House lawmakers visited a border facility in McAllen, Texas last month and decried the conditions. At least three members of Congress claimed that migrants were instructed to drink water out of toilets.

Outrage over the treatment of migrants at the border was further exacerbated after an expose revealed the racist, violent ad xenophobic Facebook posts of a group of Border Patrol professionals. Dozens of agents are currently under investigation for the posts.

Morgan later denied that the Facebook posts or allegations of agents mistreating migrants were "a pattern or part of a culture." He committed to lawmakers to that any allegation of misconduct would be thoroughly investigated and any individual who violates his or her oath as a federal law enforcement agent will be "held accountable and properly disciplined."

Many of the crisis conditions at CBP facilities were documented in two recent reports by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) covering several unannounced inspections in May and June. At the time of the inspections, Border Patrol was detaining more than 4,000 individuals every day and CBP facilities were at nearly five times capacity.

On Tuesday, Costello explained that what inspectors encountered at border facilities this spring were "far more grievous than those previously encountered" and that the crisis was creating both health and safety issues that put migrants and Border Patrol agents at risk.

At one facility in El Paso, inspectors saw 900 migrants detained at a processing center with a maximum capacity of 125. At several facilities, children under the age of 7 were detained as long as two weeks and many had no access to showers, a change of clothing or hot meals. The lack of space made it difficult for CBP agents to separate migrants carrying infectious diseases, like chickenpox, scabies and the flu.

Single adults were crammed into tiny holding areas for days and weeks at a time. Rising tensions among detained migrants led one senior facility manager to describe the situation as "a ticking timebomb."

At the same time, Costello could not fault CBP for negligence. She explained that the agency "is not responsible for providing longterm detention" and the facilities where inspectors documented the dangerous conditions "are not designed to hold people for lengthy periods of time."

With limited bed space for adults at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, and limited space for children with Health and Human Services, CBP was left to bear the brunt of system-wide backlogs, Costello explained. She added that "despite these immense challenges, we observed CBP staff interacting with the detainees in a professional and respectful manner and attempting to comply with standards to the extent possible," she said.

Acting Commissioner Morgan told lawmakers that the treatment of migrants had started to improve after Congress authorized more than $4.5 billion toward humanitarian assistance for DHS and Health and Human Services (HHS), which is responsible for housing migrant children longterm.

Within a matter of weeks, Border Patrol had reduced the number of children in its custody from 2,700 to about 300, with fewer than 20 children being held for longer than 72 hours.

There has also been a decrease in the number of individuals arriving at the border due to seasonal migration flows and recent agreements between the U.S. and Mexican governments.

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In the coming months, the DHS Office of the Inspector General is expected to publish a comprehensive report summarizing conditions at all border detention facilities. Additionally, the OIG will publish an audit of how the Trump administration is spending the $4.5 billion border supplemental and issue a report scrutinizing how the administration tracked children who were separated from their parents under the "zero-tolerance" policy.

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