SAN DIEGO -- The federal government has begun shifting the burden of managing an influx of immigrant families to local organizations and cities along the Southwest border.
President Donald Trump has criticized the policy of "catch and release" -- detaining people who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, then letting them stay in the U.S. while they pursue cases in immigration court. However, his administration's latest plan for asylum-seeking families would release them more quickly.
While annual apprehensions are still below 2014 numbers -- the last major surge in families and unaccompanied children -- and far below totals decades ago, the number of families coming to the Southwest border has increased.
Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 16,600 family members in September, the most recorded in a single month since the agency began tracking family arrivals in fiscal 2013.
In the past, when a family was in custody at the Southwest border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers would review a family's plans for living in the U.S., including calling the person with whom the family planned to live and helping with travel arrangements. The border agency announced this week that because of the number of families arriving, its officers will no longer conduct these reviews.
That means families will be released more quickly and in larger numbers, a policy dubbed "coordinated release" that has quietly been rolled out across the Southwest since early this month, beginning in Arizona. It also means families may have less guidance about how to get to their final destinations so that they can show up for their court dates.
Some migrant advocates wondered if the policy change could create chaos at the border -- and if so, whether it was politically motivated by the upcoming midterm elections.
Groups in Texas, where the largest numbers of families arrive, were already straining to manage increased releases, and they worried those numbers would only go up in the coming days.
In a statement explaining the policy change, border agency officials blamed Congress and a court ruling that says they can hold children in detention centers for up to 20 days. The Trump administration has pushed for extended family detention and more bed space to hold all of the new arrivals until their immigration court cases conclude.
"We're out of space unfortunately, given all of the increase in numbers," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told CNN earlier this month.
The country's three family detention centers are 54 percent full, with 1,977 beds occupied out of 3,654, according to the latest Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures. But the agency's budget funds 2,500 family detention beds a day, and families can require added space because those of different ages and genders are housed separately.
"Family units continue to cross the border at high volumes and are likely to continue to do so, as they face no consequence for their actions," the statement said. "To mitigate the risk of holding family units past the timeframe allotted to the government, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] began curtailing all reviews of post-release plans from families apprehended along the Southwest border starting on Tuesday."
The border agency said it will work with local and state officials "so they are prepared to provide assistance with transportation and other services."
Families will be released with ankle bracelets and notices to appear in court, the agency said. That has already happened regularly in California, which doesn't have any family detention centers.
On certain parts of the border, Homeland Security has been working with immigrant shelters for years, giving them time to find space for migrants and make travel arrangements before dropping immigrants on their doorsteps.
But in El Paso this week, Homeland Security officials notified shelters that they will no longer wait to release the immigrants, leaving them on city streets instead because they have run out of space in temporary holding areas.
Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso's Annunciation House shelter, said 20 immigrants arrived there Thursday, having paid for a taxi to the shelter after they were dropped elsewhere. He expects more to arrive in coming days because the shelter is well-known, and has already contacted El Paso emergency management officials requesting a temporary shelter with 200 cots.
"It's going to be in your lap," Garcia told city officials. "The unknown factor in this is, are cities going to get involved?"
The financial burden could be significant based on the rising number of arriving families.
Border cities have helped foot the bill in the past for emergency shelters and services for immigrant families, especially during the last major influx in 2014. But it wasn't initially clear how they would respond now, especially in an election season where immigration has become a central issue.
In San Diego, volunteers who bring food and toiletries to migrant families waiting at a bus station after being released from custody said they saw more families than usual.
Paula Sassi, one of the volunteers, said the group is waiting to see how the changes take effect and plan to adjust accordingly to keep helping the newly released families.
She and another volunteer, Mimi Pollack, worried that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would stop bringing families to the bus station, leaving them at the San Ysidro port of entry about 15 miles south on the highway.
"That is going to be a mess," Pollack said.
A Section on 10/30/2018
Print Headline: U.S. policy shifts on catch-release