Illnesses, unsanitary conditions plague immigration detention centers

A doll rests on a bed at an immigration detention center in Artesia, N.M.
(Juan Carlos Llorca / Associated Press)

Illnesses and unsanitary conditions exist at some detention centers for immigrant mothers and children along the Southwest border, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general says.

Many of the children and families who crossed the border illegally need treatment for communicable diseases, including tuberculosis, chicken pox and scabies, according to the inspector general’s report, released Thursday. Homeland Security workers said they had been exposed to such diseases while on duty and, in two cases, transmitted chicken pox to their children.

Another issue is sanitation. Some immigrants didn’t know how to use the bathrooms, the report said, resulting “in unsanitary conditions and exposure to human waste.”


Inspectors made 87 unannounced visits to 63 sites from July 1 to 15, in part because of an American Civil Liberties Union complaint that the Homeland Security Department was violating the civil rights and liberties of 116 unaccompanied children.

Contrary to allegations, the report said, “We did not observe misconduct or inappropriate conduct by DHS employees during our unannounced site visits.”

Some violations were found, however, including children held more than the 72-hour legal maximum because no permanent shelters were available. After 72 hours, children are supposed to be transferred to the Health and Human Services Department, which tries to place them with sponsors while they await an immigration hearing on whether they qualify to stay in the U.S. Under a 2008 law, children from all countries but Canada and Mexico are entitled to a hearing.

More than 57,000 children traveling alone, the bulk of them from Central America, have been apprehended at the Southwest border since Oct. 1. Their numbers have overwhelmed Homeland Security officials, who have struggled to house them.

The administration asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the border crisis, but lawmakers have failed to come to an agreement.

Inspectors found that, at one site, detainees were not receiving enough food. “We brought this issue to the attention of [Customs and Border Patrol] officials, who corrected it during our site visit,” the report said.


In some instances, Homeland Security employees were buying food with their own money for the immigrants, the report said. Workers also were donating toys, games and clothing.

Communicable diseases appeared to be the most common problem. At the Del Rio, Texas, Border Patrol station and Del Rio Port of Entry, Customs and Border Protection personnel reported contracting scabies, lice and chicken pox.

The spread of chicken pox has become such a concern at a U.S. detention center in Artesia, N.M., that arrivals and deportation proceedings have come to a halt, Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) said this week.

Two detainees are in isolation while women and children are being treated and vaccinated for the illness, he said in a statement.

“Our office has called for DHS to talk to the community directly, and answer all questions and concerns ... through open town hall meetings or forums,” Pearce said.