Immigration authorities update standards for holding migrants
Following persistent criticism that immigrants face harsh conditions while in federal custody, Customs and Border Protection issued new nationwide standards the week for the treatment of detainees at Border Patrol stations and ports of entry.
Called "standards governing transport, escort, search and detention" or TEDS, the guidelines create minimum requirements for U.S. Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations, which runs U.S. ports of entry.
These standards address the use of handcuffs and other restraints, limits the use of invasive searches, and revises the handling of personal belongings. The standards also tell agents that they cannot use shackles or temperature as "punitive measures."
The new policy also includes guidelines relating to the treatment of unaccompanied minors, and other at-risk detainees.
While advocates praised the agency's transparency, serious questions remain about the agency's accountability and oversight measures.
In many ways, the standards reflect criticism aimed at the agency over the last two years by advocates, lawyers and at least one federal judge.
In August, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee lambasted federal officials and demanded that Homeland Security release hundreds of immigrant women and children before an Oct. 23 deadline. Presiding over a lawsuit that contends the current use of family detentions runs counter to a 1997 agreement outlining the detention of minor children, Gee said that children were subject to "widespread and deplorable conditions" at Border Patrol stations.
Just a few weeks later, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights agreed with Gee's finding in September, saying in a 478-page report that it had received reports that women and children faced poor conditions in CBP custody.
The judgments by Gee and the commission echoes complaints made in a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in June by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, the National Immigration Law Center and others.
The lawsuit contends that during a six-month period in 2013, people detained in southern Arizona were regularly held for more than 24 hours in temporary facilities, breaking the agency's own policies, while subjecting immigrants to freezing, overcrowded cells without access to food, water, medical care and legal counsel.
While Homeland Security officials have often argued that the influx of thousands of unaccompanied minors and family units from Central America overwhelmed the agency, reports issued by the Immigration Policy Center and the American Immigration Center showed that immigrants reported consistent patterns of abuse in nearly 1,200 interviews collected by researchers at the University of Arizona.
In December, a group of advocates in Tucson issued a report showing that many people deported back to Mexico lost their ID cards, money, cellphones, and even medication during the transfer from one federal agency to the next.
In June, following the filing of the ACLU's lawsuit, CBP said in a public statement that the agency takes the safety and welfare of individuals in its custody seriously.
"This is consistently addressed in training and reinforced throughout an agent's career. On a daily basis, agents make every effort to ensure that those in our custody are given food, water, and medical attention as needed," said CBP.
After Gee's decision, Marsha Catron, Homeland Security's press secretary, said that the department was committed to "ensuring that individuals housed in all of our centers have the proper care and appropriate resources, that they are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner, and that their civil and due process rights are respected."
"We have consistently improved and updated our standards and policies to reflect this commitment," Catron said.
CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said that new standards continue the agency's commitment to the "safety, security and care of those in our custody" and incorporated the best practices developed in the field by both Border Patrol and Field Operations.
"CBP’s public release of revised standards is a welcome nod towards transparency and an encouraging sign that the agency has finally acknowledged border communities’ concerns," said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the ACLU of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights. "At the same time, these standards do not guarantee fair and lawful treatment for those in CBP custody and come with no structure for oversight or accountability.”
Mary Meg McCarthy, the executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center said the guidelines were an "important building block" but had similar concerns about the long-term value of TEDS if the agency did not implement accountability "at all of its locations and under all circumstances."
"If implemented in good faith and with meaningful oversight, TEDS has the potential to improve CBP’s treatment of individuals in its custody," said McCarthy.
While the numbers of unaccompanied minors and family units crossing into the United States are down nearly 50 percent from the year before, CBP said that in August it saw a spike in both populations.
More than 4,600 unaccompanied children and nearly 5,000 adults with children were apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border in August.
Even as the population dwindles, some sectors are seeing much higher numbers of both groups, including Yuma Sector where the number of family units more than doubled from 2014 to 2015.
Nationwide the total number of family units reached 34,565, with the biggest share coming from Guatemala.