Rise in family apprehensions strains BP facilities

Catholic Charities, McAllen officials seek space to accommodate large groups

McALLEN — In the first four months of fiscal year 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials reported a more than 200-percent increase in immigrant family apprehensions when compared with the same time period in fiscal year 2018.

On Tuesday night, the reality of what that increase in apprehensions means for resources and space in the Rio Grande Valley sector became public after CBP officials confirmed that they were releasing immigrant families in the RGV sector and providing them with a notice to appear. This is due to a lack of space at their detention facilities, and to avoid any potential risks which U.S. Border Patrol agents could be exposed.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials notified lawmakers, city officials and local law enforcement agencies that they are more than 2,000 persons over capacity at their respective facilities, leading to the change in how agents process immigrant families.

This would also be a change from the standard procedure of detaining, processing and holding immigrants at Border Patrol’s respective facilities before either releasing them into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, sending them to federal court for prosecution for violating immigration laws, or releasing them to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s respite center locations.

Compared with the first four months of fiscal year 2018, which saw the apprehension of 18,788  families, the beginning of fiscal year 2019 has seen three times as many families apprehended, with CBP reporting 58,032, according to the agency’s website.

In a prepared statement from a CBP spokesperson, the agency cited safety concerns for U.S. Border Patrol agents and migrants held at the facilities for beginning to release the families held in the RGV sector. They’re being released with a notice to appear, as opposed to being sent to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, according to a CBP spokesperson.

“CBP is committed to effectively utilizing our resources to support border security operations and ongoing humanitarian efforts,” the statement read. “The current increase in RGV apprehensions has resulted in the limited availability of space in the RGV central processing center and stations.

To mitigate risks to both officer safety and vulnerable populations under these circumstances, and due to limited bed space, CBP will begin releasing families in the RGV sector with a (notice to appear or own recognizance).”

The release went on to state that the releases are “temporary,” and CBP officials will continue to “coordinate with state and local stakeholders and non-governmental organizations.”

Those released will be given documentation with a date to appear before government officials to begin the asylum application process — this for those seeking as much.

ICE does not have an official statement with regard to CBP’s announcement.

The Monitor on Tuesday spoke with representatives of the city of McAllen and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who were working to find additional space for the immigrant families being released.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities, has said that — between Monday and Tuesday — they’ve seen a couple thousand immigrants come through the roughly 16,000-square-foot respite center near Hackberry Street in McAllen.

Monitor photographers on Wednesday observed a “packed house” at the respite center as immigrants were being bused in and out of the building at around 8 a.m.

Salvation Army and local churches were cited as potential options for temporary housing to help the immigrant families. The American Red Cross is also assisting its partners, which include the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, by providing 100 cots, blankets and hygiene kits.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Rio Valley Church of the Nazarene on West Nolana Avenue in McAllen was tentatively set to deal with some of the overflow groups that could not be accommodated at the respite centers, according to local Salvation Army representatives.

Multiple sources working at the federal courthouse in McAllen noted a drop in the number of defendants that Border Patrol was sending for prosecution in recent weeks, with a total of more than 100 sent last week. The decline is substantial compared to the number of defendants from just a month ago, when attorneys in the federal public defender’s office were seeing up to as many defendants per day.

As of Tuesday evening, one attorney in the public defender’s office who wished to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to provide official numbers, said just 15 defendants appeared between Monday and Tuesday in the federal magistrate court, which handles minor immigration violations.

During the height of zero tolerance in the summer of 2018, that same court saw an explosion of misdemeanor immigration cases because Border Patrol, at the behest of the Trump administration, began referring everyone who had crossed into the country illegally for prosecution, ultimately resulting in the separation of thousands of families after officials failed to track parents and their children properly.

The announcement of the release of immigrant families comes less than a week after lawmakers denied President Trump’s national emergency declaration only to have him veto their vote on Friday.

Trump declared a national emergency Feb. 15, the same day he signed a bipartisan spending bill to keep the government from another partial shutdown.

After the news of the releases became public, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, responded with a prepared statement Wednesday.

Gonzalez, who voted last week to deny the president’s national emergency declaration, said he is seeking answers about why the releases are appropriate, and would speak with CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan about the matter.

“This has created concern amongst local law enforcement, who are wondering why this procedure was deemed appropriate, or even necessary,” Gonzalez said in the release. “These local officials are asking: ‘Where will these individuals go? How does the administration plan to continue to process them.’”

Gonzalez also accused the Trump administration of creating a “crisis” to further its agenda.

“The administration can no longer claim asylum seekers are criminals, nor can they claim that there is an emergency along the border, considering the haphazard nature of their handling of this situation,” the congressman said. “President Trump, Secretary Nielsen, and the entire administration have been presented with the truth — there is no crisis on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Their response? Create one.”

The news also comes on the heels of a visit to the Valley from DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who is expected to participate in a roundtable discussion with Border Patrol and CBP officials, to name a few.