Two controversial pilot programs designed to quickly deport Mexican and Central American asylum seekers on the southern border have been fraught with problems, including migrant families forced to stay longer than appropriate, teenage girls stuck in the same cell with unrelated adults Men and toilets in facilities with restricted privacy.
The details are from a draft report from the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security received from BuzzFeed News. The two pilot programs launched last fall – the Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP) and the Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) – were part of the Trump administration’s efforts to quickly screen and possibly remove asylum seekers at the border.
As part of the HARP, Mexican asylum seekers arrested by border guards received an initial screening within 48 hours that was described as a credible fear interview by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officers, and the screening decision should be faster than usual. The other program, PACR, was similarly organized, but aimed at Central Americans traveling through Mexico to arrive at the US border.
The programs were eventually suspended during the coronavirus pandemic as the government decided to immediately turn around asylum seekers, including children, at the border.
DHS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Inspectors focused their investigation on the El Paso area, where they found numerous problems with the pilot programs, including families staying in border custody for more than a week and exceeding the 72-hour standard for detaining immigrants in CBP custody .
However, the inspectors stressed the lack of privacy in the border fortifications.
The report claims that the large cells in the facility have caused CBP officials to struggle with dueling detention standards: those that mandate family unity while requiring the separation of women and children from unrelated men. CBP officers kept different families together, and as a result women and girls were held in the cells with men and boys who were not family members.
“We found that CBP held many families together in large open cells in El Paso [Central Processing Center] without guaranteeing privacy or separation of adolescents from unrelated adults, ”the report said. Two 14-year-old girls were held in one cell with nine unrelated men.
“Waist-high partition walls in the living room stalls offered little privacy,” and there was no “private space for breastfeeding,” although there were mothers with babies. CBP officials posted a guard to watch over the detainees and there were no subsequent complaints from families.
According to the report, CBP officials tried to create a “less restrictive” environment for the detained children.
“CBP had set up a play area with colorful mats and toys in each cell. CBP officials said they padded concrete posts in the detention cells to protect running children, “the report said, as they contrasted that experience with ICE-operated family detention centers, which offer outdoor recreation, exercise equipment, exercise and access to counseling .
Border officials have in no practical way fully measured the success of the program, the inspectors wrote. According to the report, CBP had two rating metrics for PACR and none for HARP. There was no evidence that the agency had any plans to implement the policy after assessing its effectiveness, and there were no defined targets CBP had given border guards to even assess its success.
CBP workers have struggled to provide privacy to migrants so that they can speak to legal counsel and government officials on their own. USCIS officials told inspectors that many immigrants did not understand what legal representation meant and that CBP officials were having difficulty giving them access to phones.
In a credible fear interview, asylum seekers have to prove that there is a high probability that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. In the run-up to the interview, immigrants use the time in custody to consult with lawyers or others and to help them prepare their case.
In the end, only a small percentage of each of these groups were able to pass their first asylum screening interview: 19% for PACR and 29% for HARP.
The Inspector General’s draft report was an interim document and the inspectors plan to assess the remaining border areas in the future.