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Watchdog agency 'spot' inspecting ICE, BP facilities

Independent health experts said 'subpar care' contributed to deaths of 18 detainees

A federal watchdog announced Thursday that it has completed three rounds of random, unannounced inspections at detention facilities maintained by Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Since March, investigators have reviewed 57 different facilities run by CBP and three facilities used to detain families maintained by ICE, said officials with Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.

The OIG said that it began its inspection program in response to concerns raised by immigrant rights groups, and complaints received through a hotline service. 

In the last two years, facilities operated by DHS and its components, including Border Patrol, have been repeatedly criticized for the poor treatment of immigrants in detention facilities. 

Last summer, immigration and civil rights advocates launched a federal class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tucson, arguing that during a six-month period in 2013, people detained by Border Patrol in the Tucson Sector were regularly held more than 24 hours in temporary facilities, violating the agency's own policies and subjecting immigrants to freezing, overcrowded cells without access to food, water, medical care and legal council. 

In the lawsuit, American Immigration Council, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, the National Immigration Law Center, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and a California law firm said that detainees were held in inhumane and punitive conditions at the facility in Tucson. 

Children and pregnant mothers were packed into "overcrowded and filthy holding cells" where the lights were left on all day and night, the lawsuit said.  Deprived of outer layers of clothing, and deprived of beds and bedding, the immigrants were instead given thin mylar survival blankets, and had to sleep either on hard benches or the concrete floors. Some immigrants said they were given food that was inedible, and that water in the cell was undrinkable. 

On June 29, a federal judge agreed to release documents and photos showing the holding cells in the Tucson Sector, providing a rarely-seen view of facilities that have become so notorious that they are regularly called hieleras, or "iceboxes," by both agents and detainees. 

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The longer-term detention facilities maintained by ICE have also been hit with criticism. 

This includes facilities that hold immigrants convicted of crimes, but also family detention centers in Texas and other states that are holding children and their parents while their asylum and refugee claims are processed. 

Last July, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee criticized the Obama administration and ICE officials for holding more than 2,000 women and children in "deplorable" conditions at federal facilities in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. Gee demanded immigration officials release the woman and children, however, federal officials appealed, leading to a settlement. 

In the meantime, ICE took the usual step of getting the detention facilities certified by Texas' Department of Family and Protective Services as child-care centers. While Texas' officials complied, in May advocates with Grassroots Leadership sued, saying that the department cannot regulate detention centers or prisons and asked a district court to intervene. 

On July 6, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that children accompanied by a parent cannot be held in family detention centers. However, the court did not decide about the fate of parents, who could could be left in the family detention centers while their children are released. 

Also in July, two independent health experts said that "subpar care" contributed to the deaths of at a least 18 immigrants at detention facilities maintained by ICE. 

In a report released by Human Rights Watch, the two doctors reviewed internal reports from ICE and found that delays in care and bad policies contributed to deaths. 

This includes the death of 54-year old Pablo Garcida-Conte, who waited 22 days at the Eloy Detention Center while he suffered increasingly severe symptoms before he was taken to a hospital. He died two days later of a treatable disease of the heart muscle. 

ICE's own internal watchdog said that Garcida-Conte's death might have been prevented if "the providers, including the physicians at EDC had provided the appropriate medical treatment in a timely manner." 

Similarly, the use of isolation may have contributed to the suicide of Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun, 31, at the same facility last May. 

If inspectors find problems during the spot inspections, they are expected to report these issues to CBP and ICE to ensure they are "immediately addressed and rectified," the agency said. 

The Inspector General's office did not identify where the inspections took place or how many facilities it would ultimately review. 

"These unannounced inspections offer significant insight into the conditions at these facilities, and give the American public confidence in our independent and rigorous oversight of DHS’ treatment of immigrant detainees," said the head of the agency, Inspector General John Roth. "We will continue to conduct these inspections to monitor conditions at ICE and CBP facilities across the country." 

This isn't the first time that OIG has reviewed immigration detention facilities. 

In June 2014, the office said after visiting 126 holding facilities it found with only a few exceptions, the Border Patrol was largely complaint with "law, regulations, and policies." 

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Ross D. Franklin/AP Pool Photo

Dozens of unaccompanied minors held at the U.S. Border Patrol's Nogales Processing Center on June 14, 2014, in Nogales as part of the agency's response to the influx of thousands of children into the United States through the Rio Grande Valley.