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WASHINGTON — The government’s own internal watchdog warned as far back as May that conditions at an El Paso, Texas, border station were so bad that border agents were arming themselves against possible riots, countering Friday’s assertion by a top Trump administration official that reports of poor conditions for migrants were “unsubstantiated.”
In an internal report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and obtained by NBC News, inspectors noted during a May 7 tour of a border station in the El Paso sector that only four showers were available for 756 immigrants, more than half of the immigrants were being held outside, and immigrants inside were being kept in cells maxed out at more than five times their capacity.
Border agents remained armed in holding areas because they were worried about the potential for unrest, the report said.
Agents typically put their weapons in a lockbox when they enter holding areas, a DHS official said.
A cell meant for a maximum of 35 held 155 adult males with only one toilet and sink. The cell was so crowded the men could not lie down to sleep. Temperatures in the cells reached over 80 degrees, the report said.
"With limited access to showers and clean clothing, detainees were wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks," the report said.
Medical concerns were also rising during early May, the report found. Agents reported taking sick migrants to the hospital five times a day, treating 75 immigrants for lice in a single day and trying to quarantine outbreaks of flu, chickenpox and scabies.
At the time the inspectors visited the border station, two civilian staff members were buying food for over 1,000 people on their credit cards.
“They’re spending $10,000 a day on cards not designed for that purpose,” the report said.
While this particular El Paso facility, the name of which is redacted in the report, did have formula and baby food for children, it did not have soft mats for them to sleep on or clean clothing.
News of the inspector general’s report follows remarks by acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan on Friday that news stories of poor conditions for children at a border station in the El Paso sector were "unsubstantiated."
Last week, lawyers allowed inside a Border Patrol facility near El Paso in Clint, Texas, reported children taking care of other children and living in soiled clothing.
Trump administration officials have said the conditions in border stations are a result of backlogs in both Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Health and Human Services facilities, which are meant to hold migrants for longer. Immigrants are not supposed to be in Customs and Border Protection custody for longer than 72 hours, but more than 500 of the 756 immigrants observed by the DHS inspectors at the facility on May 7 had been held there for more than 72 hours.
CBP and ICE are both part of the DHS. The Border Patrol, in turn, is part of CBP.
Congress passed a bill last week that would increase space at ICE and HHS facilities to alleviate the overcrowding. But the DHS internal report shows that the poor conditions, particularly in the El Paso sector, had been flagged as dangerous by investigators at least as far back as May 16, when the report was transmitted.
Some of the conditions, such as a lack of showers or clean clothes for detainees, are not dependent on more funding for detention space elsewhere.
The report also included interviews with CBP agents at the Paso Del Norte border station in El Paso, where morale was in sharp decline. The agents had concerns that the conditions would lead to riots or hunger strikes by migrants. Some agents were looking to retire early or move to another agency.
"The current situation where immigrants are simply giving themselves up to the border patrol [and border patrol must detain] is causing low morale and high anxiety. They are seeing more drinking, domestic violence and financial problems among their agents," the report said.
DHS did not respond to a request for comment.
Jacob Soboroff reported from Los Angeles.