EL PASO, Texas (AP) — The surge of migrant families arriving at the southern border has led the Trump administration to dramatically expand a practice President Donald Trump has long mocked as “catch and release.”
With immigrant processing and holding centers overwhelmed, the administration is busing people hundreds of miles inland and releasing them at Greyhound stations and churches in cities like Albuquerque, San Antonio and Phoenix because towns close to the border already have more than they can handle.
Relief organizations in some cities are struggling to feed and house the migrants and warning that a public health crisis is taking shape.
“We’re asking volunteer doctors and nurses and community members to step up and do what the government should be doing. If this was a hurricane, FEMA would be on the ground helping,” said Jim Gannon, CEO and executive director of Catholic Charities in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
For many years, families arriving at the border were typically released from U.S. custody immediately and allowed to settle in this country with family or friends while their cases wound their way through the courts, a process that often takes years.
Trump has railed against the practice, tweeting in November that it was over: “Catch and Release is an obsolete term. It is now Catch and Detain. Illegal Immigrants trying to come into the U.S.A., often proudly flying the flag of their nation as they ask for U.S. Asylum, will be detained or turned away.”
But in recent months, the number of families crossing into the U.S. has climbed to record highs, pushing the system to the breaking point. As a result, the government is releasing families faster, in greater numbers and at points farther removed from the border.
Since Dec. 21, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has set free more than 125,000 people who came into the U.S. as families.
Customs and Border Protection is also overloaded, and instead of holding families for up to 72 hours before turning them over to ICE, it has started releasing them directly into the U.S.
“The numbers are overwhelming right now,” said Gregory Archambault, ICE director of enforcement and removal operations in San Diego. “Everybody is stressed. The agency is stressed, the (local governments) are stressed, the law enforcement agencies. Everybody is stressed because there are these mass numbers of people.”
ICE has been releasing asylum-seeking families so quickly that they don’t even have time to make travel arrangements. Families are given court dates, a head of household is often fitted with an ankle monitor, and they are dropped off at a charity-run shelter or bus station.
San Antonio received part of that surge in recent days, forcing the city to open a help center with food for migrants.
In El Paso, where shelters and churches are at capacity and seats on buses headed out of the city are getting harder to find, authorities briefly resorted to holding migrants in a pen lined with concertina wire under the shade of a bridge that connects the American city to Juarez, Mexico. They closed the makeshift holding area over the weekend and moved the migrants to a place with more shelter.
“We spent four days under the bridge, sleeping on the rocks,” said Eliseo Santiago, 37, who is from Guatemala.
“They treated us like animals,” said Herling Jerlyn, a teenager from Guatemala.
In Albuquerque, nearly 280 miles from the border, faith-based organizations have helped roughly 1,000 migrants since mid-February. The groups were small at first, but they have been growing and the arrivals have become more frequent.
San Diego County recently opened a shuttered downtown courthouse slated for demolition to house up to 150 asylum seekers. A coalition of religious and civic groups that manages the shelter said it has helped more than 11,000 members of asylum-seeking families since authorities began large-scale releases in late October.
About 22,000 immigrants have been released in Arizona in the past three months. In the Phoenix area, the nonprofit organizations and churches taking them in have a capacity of only 700 a week, said Connie Phillips, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services in the Southwest.
That means immigration authorities have to drop off families by the busload at places not designed to take them in, like the Greyhound station in Phoenix.
The bus company is no longer allowing anyone without a ticket to wait inside, so immigrant families, including little children, stand outside until a volunteer can get them in touch with a relative to buy them a ticket. That sometimes takes hours.
“The federal government is saying, ‘This is not our responsibility,’” Phillips said. “And the cities and states have not stepped up to provide any kind of emergency funding.”
She added: “This is going to be a public health disaster. These are small children, these are families, these are babies, and we cannot have people just out in the heat.”
Authorities said family arrivals along the U.S.-Mexico border reached an all-time high in February of 45,827 arrests or denials of entry.
“We didn’t have family groups for years and years, like we have now,” ICE’s Archambault said. “Our facilities are not made for this. We have diapers and baby formula and all this stuff, like a nursery.”
In another sign of how U.S. authorities are being tested as rarely before, figures released Tuesday show a significant drop in prosecutions for illegal entry, even as arrests have climbed sharply. The numbers are at odds with Trump’s vow to prosecute everyone who enters the country illegally.
In February, Customs and Border Protection referred 8,998 illegal-entry cases to prosecutors along the border, a drop of 12% from January and 23% from October, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Border Patrol arrests of single adults are moving in the opposite direction: 23,451 in February, up 26% from January and 7% from October.
Galvan reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego; Nomaan Merchant in Houston; Colleen Long in Washington; and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this story.