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By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
In an abrupt immigration policy change, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has announced it will start releasing some migrant families from its detention facilities in Texas due to overcrowded conditions. According to ABC News, CBP will give some of the families apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley area notices to appear in court. Others will be released on their own recognizance, meaning they have a court date but no set bond amount. A CBP official cited the recent increases in border arrests as the reason for the temporary policy change, saying it was done “to mitigate risks to both officer safety and vulnerable populations under these circumstances.”
Migrant apprehensions along the southwest border have been hitting record numbers in the last few months with over 66,000 people apprehended in February alone. The majority of those apprehensions have been family units.
Although more shelters and facilities have been built to house families and children, many of the new facilities are not near the border. Existing detention cells are old and designed for single male migrants — the most common demographic of border crosser prior to 2010.
As such, extreme overcrowding should come as no surprise to U.S. authorities, nor the need for some kind of release valve. However, this kind of solution has not gone well in the past.
Over the Christmas holiday during the partial federal government shutdown, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dropped off approximately 2,000 migrants in El Paso – with no notice to city officials. At the time, U.S. Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, called the government’s action “unacceptable” and said federal law enforcement officials told her the reason they no longer create temporary housing was because “it was too difficult.”
‘Why Do This Now?’
Some immigration advocates are concerned that the current migrant release strategy is politically motivated to cause chaos, similar to the Christmas holiday releases. “Why do this now? It doesn’t make sense,” said Zenen Jaimes Perez, advocacy director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, which sent lawyers to the McAllen bus station to assist the migrants. “This is not something they’ve done before.”
A Border Patrol official — who spoke to the Los Angeles Times on the condition that he not be identified — denied that the release was a political stunt and said that crowding the facilities would threaten the safety of agents and migrants. Four immigrants have died in Border Patrol custody in the last few months, including a man that died shortly after his arrest a few days ago.
Effectiveness of a Border Wall
President Donald Trump has cited the surge in apprehensions and detention facility overcrowding as justification for declaring a national emergency along the southwest border. This declaration, while currently being challenged in court, is allowing the administration to seek over $8 billion in funding from the Department of Defense and other government agencies to pay for the expansion of the border fence. Current apprehension and drug seizure statistics show that the majority of both migrants and illegal drugs are entering the U.S. through the legal ports of entry, calling into question the ultimate effectiveness of more border fencing.
Migrant Overcrowding Strains Facilities
With the new releases under this updated policy, the overcrowding strain is just moving from government facilities to church and nonprofit shelters. Elizabeth Cavazos, a leader of the migrant advocacy group Angry Tias & Abuelas of RGV, said ICE typically releases 300 to 500 migrants a day in McAllen, but additional releases in large numbers by the Border Patrol are likely to strain the system.
The LA Times indicated the respite center is already at capacity, with 900 migrants spread between the main facility and a temporary site opened this week. The Border Patrol has been moving 700 to 800 migrants a day to ICE over the last week, but that was 300 a day less than the Border Patrol wanted to transfer.