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Tucson Border Patrol bypassing ICE in releasing migrant families

Border Patrol released a small group of Central American families from custody in Tucson this week, bypassing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because the agency increasingly cannot manage the large numbers arriving families and unaccompanied children. 

At least nine people were released to Catholic Community Services here on Monday night, and on Tuesday another 10 people arrived from Border Patrol custody, said Teresa Cavendish, the director of operations for the group. Another 20 were expected late Wednesday, she said. 

"There's a strong effort with Border Patrol to keep from releasing people to the streets," said Cavendish. "It's not terrible, but it's on top of around 100 people that are coming already, so we're doing everything we can," said the Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona staffer. "None us accept the idea of releasing people on the streets."

As small numbers of families trickle in from Border Patrol, Catholic Community Services is also helping people released from ICE custody, numbering as many as 120 people per day here.

From December 21 to April 1, ICE released 125,565 people seeking asylum along the southwestern border, including 22,000 in the Phoenix area of responsibility, which covers Arizona, according to statistics released by the agency this week. 

ICE's San Antonio office released more than 53,000 people during the same time period, while ICE in the El Paso area released 37,500. 

In November, President Donald Trump attacked the practice of releasing migrants, tweeting 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," he wrote. 

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"For the first time in over a decade, CBP is performing direct releases of migrants when ICE has reached capacity," said a spokesman with Tucson Sector Border Patrol. The sector, he said,  "relies on partnerships" with groups like Catholic Community Services. While non-governmental organizations "are able to assist, we will continue to coordinate with them to minimize the impact of these releases on the community," he said. 

The agency "has proportionately reallocated agents and other logistical resources to fulfill processing, detention, and humanitarian efforts as they address the continuous flow of family units and unaccompanied alien children in the Tucson Sector," he said. 

The shift in the Tucson Sector follows similar moves in the adjacent Yuma Sector and Texas' Rio Grande Valley as Trump administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, have been calling the influx of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America a "humanitarian crisis."

On Wednesday, officials said that agents in the Yuma area apprehended nearly 1,000 people, most hailing from Central America, is just the last three days. A video released by the agency from a pole camera shows a line of people walking across a canal bridge toward Border Patrol vehicles. 

"It's overwhelming our systems today," said Roy Villareal, the chief of the Tucson Sector during an interview in March. "If you look at the asylum applications 10 years ago, they were probably in the few thousands. And today, we're upwards of maybe a hundred thousand," he said. "Our facilities were not designed to house families. We weren't prepared for the influx of families," he said.  

Villareal called the situation a "crisis." 

"When you look across the entire Southwest border — again looking at the system that's in place — it is not designed to handle this type of migratory flow. That's pushed us to a breaking point. We don't have adequate facilities and I challenge you to find a law enforcement entity that has tasked with arresting families," he said. 

Agents are increasingly responsible for taking people to hospitals for medical care, and agents are now transporting up to 60 people per day to local hospitals, Villareal said. Large groups of migrants, including 50 to 150 people are "self-surrendering" to agents, he said. But, he also warned that if this continues into the summer, where temperatures in areas like Lukeville, Ariz., might rise to 115 degrees, "families with little kids" represent a "tremendous liability and burden" for agents responsible for their safety.

Villareal also worried that smuggling groups were using the families as cover to either move drugs or other people in the United States, noting that while around 30 percent of detentions were people "self-surrendering" to agents and seeking asylum, the remaining 70 percent were people trying to sneak past agents, often wearing camouflage clothing and "carpet shoes" to hide their tracks. 

Days later in El Paso, the commissioner of CBP, Kevin McAleenan, used the same language. "CBP is facing an unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis all along our douthwest border," he said. "And nowhere has that crisis manifested more acutely than here in El Paso." 

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"We are now on pace for over 100,000 apprehensions and encounters with migrants in March," he said. "March will be the highest month since 2008. The arriving flows are made up primarily of Central American families and unaccompanied children."

"These groups cannot be repatriated expeditiously, and instead, are almost guaranteed to be released to remain in the US indefinitely, regardless of the merits of their immigration or asylum claim. The last time we had crossings near this level, they were almost all single adults from Mexico who can be swiftly repatriated. It's a big difference," McAleenan said.

Through December, the White House spent major political capital trying to get billions for border barriers, and after that effort was largely stymied by Congressional Democrats, Trump declared an emergency, and began stripping money from the Defense Department, including funds for military construction projects. 

Last week, the Pentagon told Congress that it was going to transfer $1 billion to begin construction along the U.S.-Mexico border, which will include 57 miles of fencing near Yuma and El Paso, along with road improvements and other border security measures.

Families from Central America drive increase

Overall, the number of people detained along the southwest border has increased nearly 39 percent, rising from around 48,000 people apprehended by Border Patrol agents in January to more than 66,000 in February, a shift largely driven by the increase in the number of families largely from Central America, and children traveling without parents or guardians, arriving at the border and immediately turning themselves over to agents. Many of those detained are making claims of asylum.

From January to February, the number of vulnerable people increased by 47 percent. In Yuma Sector, nine out 10 people picked up by Border Patrol agents were either members of a family, or a child traveling "unaccompanied." In the Tucson Sector, around 30 percent of the 4,915 people were part of a family, or an unaccompanied child. 

March numbers are still being compiled, but an agency spokesman said he expects that trend to continue. 

"I want to be clear with the American people: there is an unprecedented emergency at the southern border, and DHS is leading a true government-wide emergency response," said Nielsen. "We are using every tool at our disposal, redeploying personnel and resources, and calling on all federal agencies to assist, where possible," she said. 

For this end, Nielsen tapped Manuel Padilla Jr., a former chief of the Tucson Sector before he was transferred to the Rio Grande Valley, to lead an "Interagency Border Emergency Cell." 

Padilla will lead the cell, which will include CBP and ICE, as well as officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and DHS's National Response Coordination Center. 

At the same time, Nielsen has ordered DHS agencies to "surge" personnel "toward border security and migration management," a move that includes shifting up to 750 employees of CBP from the U.S. ports. 

A spokeswoman for the Nogales border crossings, Teresa Small, would not confirm how many officers were being drawn from the area, only that "just we are sending some as requested." However, the agency has announced that it will stop Sunday inspections, potentially holding up millions of dollars in produce and other goods that travel into Arizona through Nogales. 

"While only legislation can fix this crisis in the long term, we cannot wait for Congress to act. It is our duty to secure the homeland, enforce our immigration laws, and uphold our humanitarian obligations. So we are devoting everything we can to that end," Nielsen said. 

The administration has largely refused to outline what those fixes would be. 

Instead, administration officials have moved to overturn the Flores Settlement, an agreement as part of a 90's-era class-action lawsuit, in U.S. courts, and there was the controversial move to separate children from their parents, a plan that began late 2017 and was terminated after a large-scale public outcry over the summer. 

Similarly, a plan to send people back to Mexico while their case is adjudicated has run into snags. The program, known as "Remain in Mexico," or the Migrant Protection Protocol, has dealt with a few dozen cases at the San Ysidro port. The administration has expanded the program to three sectors, including California's San Diego and El Centro Sectors, but the program has not come to Arizona and a DHS spokeswoman would only say that DHS was working to "implement" MPP across the southern border. 

Nielsen also said she would tour the border, visiting Yuma on Thursday and Calexico on Friday along with the president. 

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Tucson Sector's move comes just days after Yuma Sector Border Patrol officials announced that they were also releasing migrants directly to the city's streets, while community groups in the area scrambled to set up temporary facilities to house families before they left the border city. 

While ICE officials have dropped migrant families off at Phoenix-area Greyhound stations, Casa Alitas has been able to manage the numbers, largely because the group was allowed to use a Tucson-area monastery, though at least two other churches have taken in small groups as well. 

For months, Cavendish and a burgeoning group of volunteers, have been working with immigration officials to shelter migrant families in Tucson, and keep them from being released to the streets, and in recent weeks, the group has been able to use a Benedictine Monastery as a shelter. "We really couldn't help this many people without the monastery," she said. "We're busy, and we'll keep being busy for the foreseeable future." 

Since October, the program under Catholic Community Services known as Casa Alitas, which manages the hosting of migrant families at several Tucson churches, has served more than 5,000 people, she said. "That's more people than we've served since Casa Alitas began in 2014," she said. 

"But, we can do it," Cavendish said. 

Backlog grows as administration plan collapses

For several years, families arriving at the border were typically released immediately from U.S. custody, and given documents called "notices to appear," and allowed to settle with sponsors while their cases wound through the immigration courts, a process that's became increasingly backlogged, potentially limiting how fast the current cases of families released this year may face an immigration court. 

By February 28, 2019, there was nearly 866,000 pending cases, an increase of more than 300,000 cases since January 2019 when Trump took office, said the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a non-partisan project hosted at Syracuse University. 

This does not include another 300,000 previously completed cases that the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a part of the Justice Department, said it would resurrect and place back on "pending" rolls that are not yet counted on the active case list. 

However, newly arriving families are likely not the main reason for this backlog in part because unlike the Obama administration, which made "family units" a priority, the Trump administration has downgraded cases involving children.

Instead, from September 2018 to February 2019, around 133,140 cases were heard in U.S. immigration courts and of those about 16 percent were "family unit" cases. Overall, these new cases represent about 4 percent of the backlog, TRAC said. 

At the same time, an EOIR plan to reduce the backlog actually contributed to a 25 percent increase in the number of cases, even as the plan "undermined the due process and integrity of the immigration court system," said the American Immigration Lawyers Association. 

 This included a plan to strip immigration judges — who operate as lawyers employed by the Justice Department — from being able to administratively close cases, while "compelling" them to reopen old cases, AILA said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

People wait in line at the Morley pedestrian crossing in Nogales, Son., in December.

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