Despite the Obama administration’s vow to shift resources, Border Patrol agents say they are still tasked with caring for children who have crossed the border illegally, which is undermining their regular patrol duties of going after gun, drug and human smugglers.
An inspector general report finds that the Obama administration has successfully housed the children and has cleared 16 accusations of abuse that the American Civil Liberties Union lodged against U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but says the administration is losing focus on border security.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske asked for a review after the ACLU and a handful of immigrant rights groups filed more than 100 complaints saying children had been verbally abused and, in some cases, physically mistreated.
President Obama said last week that his juggling of staffing and resources after a rocky start helped stem the flow of children.
Investigators, though, said agents told them that staffing was insufficient to care for the children and perform regular duties such as tracking and apprehending smugglers carrying guns, drugs, money and people across the border.
The number of children crossing the border illegally dropped by 50 percent from June to July, and some top administration officials argued that they were making headway.
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But Shawn Moran, a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union representing agents, said the numbers could be dropping for other reasons such as summer heat and the derailment of a train nicknamed “The Beast,” which carries many of the migrants across Mexico.
“We haven’t done anything enforcementwise that would cause so precipitous a drop in traffic,” he said.
He said some agents are catching drug loads that are two or three times the size they used to see, and the drug traffickers have been pushing into new areas while the children use the old smuggling lanes.
Mr. Moran said that is more evidence of how well the cartels have adapted to U.S. enforcement efforts.
A CBP spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment on staffing levels.
The surge of children has tested the agency’s resources as agents and officers are tasked with heating baby formula, changing diapers and dealing with communicable diseases. Officials said some agents have given their own children’s toys and clothes to illegal immigrants.
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Agents and officers have also faced complaints, though. More than 100 complaints detailed by the ACLU said children told stories of being insulted, being called inappropriate names and being deprived of food or blankets.
The inspector general investigated 16 of those complaints and cleared agents and officers each time after finding no evidence to substantiate the claims.
Investigators said no complaints have been filed since the investigation began.
“I’m pleased with the progress CBP has made in dealing with this unprecedented crisis, although some challenges remain,” said Inspector General John Roth. “We will continue with our proactive oversight and report the results on a monthly basis, or as events dictate.”
Investigators gave generally high marks to the two agencies that are handling the surge on the border, and even noted that they “changed the food choices available to family units to accommodate requests for a more familiar diet.”
Groups that filed the complaints did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Mr. Moran said the labor union had confidence that the investigation would clear agents of wrongdoing.
“It shows that the ACLU is not going forward with valid complaints, and will make an accusation on very flimsy allegations,” Mr. Moran said.
The investigators made 57 unannounced visits to the facilities housing the children and three more visits to a facility housing families. They found CBP was generally meeting its obligations to process the children within 72 hours and providing sanitary facilities to house them.
The only significant problem investigators identified in their report, released late last week, was inconsistent temperatures. The audit said thermostats can’t be adjusted in some facilities.
The illegal immigrants, however, continued to cause some problems, including with toilets at the facility in Artesia, New Mexico, which the government opened specifically to detain families.
“Family unit illnesses and unfamiliarity with bathroom facilities continued to result in unsanitary conditions,” the investigators said in their report. “DHS employees told us the contracted cleaning service is inadequate.”
New Mexico radio station KUNM reported last week that the Artesia facility hadn’t been licensed as a child care facility, which some lawyers said could leave it in violation of state child welfare laws.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the Artesia facility, said in a statement that the residential center provides a “shelter-like setting” for families awaiting deportation proceedings.
“During their time at Artesia, residents retain parental responsibility for their children and are readily accessible to provide for their care and supervision,” the agency said.