A government watchdog report published Friday details how the U.S. "took deliberate steps" in 2018 to limit the number of asylum seekers processed at ports of entry along the Mexico border, including stopping processing "virtually all" undocumented immigrants at seven port locations and turning away asylum seekers who had already stepped into the country.
The 37-page Inspector General report found that, amid a surge of immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. from May through June of 2018, Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection leadership urged people seeking asylum to lawfully present themselves at ports of entry but did not take steps to maximize the agency's processing capability.
That year, the caravans of immigrants coming to the southern border consisted of more families and unaccompanied children – and a greater number of asylum seekers – than in the past, according to the report. But in fiscal year 2018, the agency's Southwest Border ports processed 38,269 undocumented immigrants seeking asylum – not quite one-third of the nearly 125,000 people who arrived at U.S. ports of entry that year, the report found.
Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The series of "deliberate steps" began months after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "Zero Tolerance Policy" required Customs and Border Protection to refer for prosecution every adult who entered the U.S. illegally.
'No child should be away from their mom': Trump policies make it nearly impossible for refugees to come to US
In June of 2018, then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen authorized a practice that prevented an estimated 650 undocumented immigrants from entering ports every day, according to the report. The practice, called "Queue Management," posts officers at a "limit line" at or near the U.S.-Mexico border to control the number of undocumented immigrants entering ports.
Nielsen also told the ports in a memo that processing undocumented immigrants "was not one of CBP’s main priorities, and they should consider re-assigning staff away from processing such aliens to focus instead on detection and apprehension of narcotics and currency smugglers," the report said.
The number of undocumented immigrants waiting in Mexico to enter U.S. ports increased from 942 on June 20, 2018, to more than 2,000 on October 1, 2018, according to the report.
That month, one agency executive told his staff in an email that expanding the operating hours of ports was "too resource intensive just to help the migrants." The executive wrote that, "We might consider adding officers when the port is closed to help secure against breeches, but don’t want to add extra hours to process more migrants."
By the end of October, the number of undocumented immigrants waiting in Mexico to enter U.S. ports grew to more than 3,000.
'They are so well taken care of': Trump defends separating migrant children from parents
According to the report, Customs and Border Protection also took "several additional actions to limit the number of undocumented aliens processed each day at Southwest Border land ports of entry."
Without prior public notice, seven of the 24 Southwest Border land ports stopped processing "virtually all" undocumented immigrants, including asylum seekers, even though the ports were classified as a "port of entry for all (immigrants)." The ports, which were within the Laredo and San Diego field offices, instead redirected them to other locations – some of which were more than 30 miles away, through difficult terrain.
"We observed CBP officers telling aliens the port was at capacity and did not have the capability to process them, regardless of actual capacity and capability at the time," the report said.
According to the report, agency leadership claimed that they implemented the redirecting procedure at the seven ports because they were remote ports with few staff
and outdated facilities that close at night and are far from medical care. But some of the ports that immigrants were redirected to also closed at night and were up to an hour away from medical care, according to the report.
Customs and Border Protection staff also turned away asylum seekers at four ports after they had already entered the country, even though asylum seekers legally must be processed once physically within the U.S. At two ports, officers returned asylum seekers who had not only crossed over the international boundary into the U.S. but also had entered the ports' buildings, according to the report.
Around the same time, Nielsen testified before Congress and encouraged asylum seekers to come to a port of entry, assuring them that the U.S. "will process your claim." Other department and agency leaders made similar public statements.
Supreme Court will rule: Trump's plan to exclude undocumented immigrants from House apportionment
Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First, an international human rights organization, said in a statement that the report "makes clear that the Trump administration’s Homeland Security and Border Protection leaders purposefully launched an orchestrated effort to reduce the number of asylum seekers processed by the United States, intending to turn away specific numbers of asylum seekers, and then lied about it to asylum seekers, the American public and Congress."
The report made three recommendations to Customs and Border Protection aimed at bringing agency "operations in line with long-established practices and promoting the efficient processing of undocumented aliens."
The agency did not agree with the report's recommendation to resume processing undocumented immigrants at the seven ports of entry currently redirecting them to other ports, citing issues with "operation capacity," according to a copy of the agency's response included in the report. The Office of the Inspector General would consider the recommendation "unresolved and open," the report said.
However, the agency did agree with two other recommendations: To provide written guidance and training to personnel at ports of entry relating to the proper handling of aliens who are physically present and indicate an intention to apply for asylum, and to evaluate whether the agency can more efficiently use available holding spaces to process undocumented aliens, including asylum seekers.
The Office of the Inspector General asked the agency to provide a formal letter within 30 days showing evidence of completing the recommendations. Per usual, the office also sent the report to congressional committees with oversight and appropriation responsibility over the Department of Homeland Security.
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US immigration: Asylum seekers processing along Mexico border limited