Analysis Immigration

Here’s Why ICE Is ‘Mass Releasing’ Immigrant Families From Detention Centers

Tina Vasquez

The Trump administration is releasing an unusual number of migrants, with little to no warning to the communities taking them in, in an effort to scare and sway white Republican voters, advocates say.

Federal immigration authorities are quietly releasing an unusual number of immigrant families from detention centers, “dumping [them] on border city streets” and leaving some stranded at bus stations in the middle of the night.

The Trump administration’s “mass release” of immigrant families is in anticipation of hundreds of asylum-seeking families coming to the U.S.-Mexico border in the coming weeks. 

Advocates along the border in California and Texas told Rewire.News that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is releasing the families it has detained for at least 20 days from the two family detention centers in Texas, and that immigration officials are not detaining newly apprehended families, but rather are quickly processing them for release.

Immigration officials are affixing parents with electronic monitoring devices and giving them “notices to appear,” a document that outlines when they must appear in immigration court. Customs and Border Protection typically holds migrant families apprehended at the border or who present themselves at ports of entry in processing centers before officials transfer them to ICE detention centers. ICE routinely subjects families in federal immigration custody to prolonged detention, despite the existence of the Flores Settlement Agreement which, among other basic protections, dictates that children cannot be detained in detention centers for more than 20 days.

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News outlets from San Diego to El Paso are reporting that the Trump administration has begun “shifting the burden” of managing immigrant families on the border “to local organizations and cities across the southwest border,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. On Thursday, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas, reported that 20 people who’d been released from detention centers were forced to sleep at a bus station in San Antonio because local shelters were full and they were left there by ICE after the last bus had left the station. On Friday in El Paso, ICE agents dropped off more than 100 Central American migrants at a Greyhound bus station without notice to local advocacy organizations. Usually, local organizations are given notice by federal immigration authorities so that they can help coordinate transportation and shelter for migrants released from custody.

Officials with Greyhound reportedly called the police on the Central American migrants at the bus station.

A source in Texas working closely with these formerly-detained immigrant families told Rewire.News there’s no “rhyme or reason” related to which families are released from custody. They said that at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, otherwise known as Dilley, “intakes are down 50 percent.” However, some families detained there longer than 20 days, in violation of the Flores agreement, are feeling “extra anxious” about why they remain detained. Advocates have no answer for them.

Overall, apprehensions are below what they were in 2014 when President Obama declared there was a “urgent humanitarian situation” at the border. However, there has been an increase in the number of families and unaccompanied children migrating to the United States to seek asylum. According to numbers from CBP, Border Patrol 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 year 2013.

A spokesperson from ICE told Rewire.News that in response to the rising arrest numbers, the federal agency has increased the number of releases from Texas’ family detention centers and that the agency is “diverting local resources” to accommodate what they anticipate to be an “increased operational workflow” once asylum seekers as part of the “migrant caravan” arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, many of whom are parents and children.

The ICE spokesperson blamed the “inaction of Congress” for its inability to “detain and promptly remove families with no legal basis to remain in the United States,” though it is only the job of asylum officers conducting credible fear interviews to determine whether members of a migrant family have legal grounds for remaining in the country.

“To mitigate the risk of holding family units past the time frame allotted to the government, ICE began curtailing all reviews of post-release plans from families apprehended along the southwest border starting on Tuesday, October 23,” the spokesperson told Rewire.News. “Family units that are released will be enrolled in a form of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention or released on another form of supervision. Aliens will be issued a Notice to Appear in immigration court, as appropriate. ICE continues to work with local and state officials and [nongovernmental organization (NGO)] partners in the area so they are prepared to provide assistance with transportation or other services.”

Organizations in border towns are reporting the opposite. Ruben Garcia, founder and director of El Paso’s Annunciation House, told Texas Monthly that immigration officials are no longer contacting the relatives or friends of the migrants they release, or providing bus tickets or other forms of transportation. These functions will now “be left to NGOs, churches, or shelters.” This was echoed by Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which oversees the Humanitarian Respite Center. Pimentel told Texas Monthly that her group is handling as many as 500 people a day and that there are many they simply cannot accommodate because they don’t have the space or resources.

In San Diego, where the releases have not been as large, Lilian Serrano, chair of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, told Rewire.News in a statement that organizations in the city are “more than ready” to help asylum-seeking families and provide them with support.

When a family was in custody at the southwest border, it was part of ICE’s job to review their plans for living in the United States, including calling the person whom the family planned to live with and helping with travel arrangements. This is no longer the case under the Trump administration’s new policy, rolled out weeks before midterm elections in which Republicans are facing a range of electoral challenges. 

Jennifer Apodaca, an organizer with El Paso’s Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee (DMSC), told Rewire.News this is all part of a “manufactured escalation” under the Trump administration. It is intended to rile up Trump’s anti-immigrant base and push through some of his administration’s more inhumane policies, including proposed rule changes overriding Flores that would subject children to prolonged detention. 

DMSC is one of 50 immigrant rights advocacy groups that filed an amicus brief Monday condemning Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to remove power from immigration judges so only ICE agents can determine which immigrants, including asylum seekers, should be released from detention.  

In September, Sessions announced he would overturn a precedent by the Board of Immigration Appeals in the decision known as “Matter of X-K,” which held that immigration judges have the power to release certain migrants on bond at a hearing. 

Apodaca said the southwest border has received “caravans” of migrants for years, as many migrants travel together in groups for safety. There are organizations at the border that provide food, shelter, and transportation to migrants released from federal custody, but they were not prepared for the Trump administration’s apparent mass releases that began last week. Something similar happened in 2016 under the Obama administration, which left many immigrant families stranded in the streets.

While Apodaca does contend the reported 7,000 Honduran asylum seekers headed for the U.S.-Mexico border is much larger than usual, the “media frenzy” around it is playing into the Trump administration’s hands, she said.

“There’s no nice way to put this, but this is about scaring white Americans into believing that the administration has been ‘forced’ to release ‘angry migrant hordes’ into the street because of another large group of brown people they’re afraid of coming to the border, or because they want to say they are constrained by current policies that ‘force’ them to release children after 20 days, even when we know they detain children much longer than that pretty regularly,” Apodaca said. “Right now, you have the border being blocked by agents holding assault rifles,  a possible [executive] order banning asylum seekers, and the military being deployed. Even though this was all created by the Trump administration, they will use it as evidence to close the border.”

Last week, Rewire.News reported that Trump is considering an executive order that would bar any migrants from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, a decision that would violate existing asylum laws and agreements and far exceed his authority as president. 

On Monday, U.S. officials speaking to the Wall Street Journal confirmed as many as 5,000 troops will be deployed to the southwest border in anticipation of the migrant caravan’s arrival. It is unclear what their role will be, as federal law bars active-duty military from enforcing domestic law, including immigration laws, without congressional approval.

In a statement to Rewire.News, a spokesperson with CBP said the agency is making “necessary preparations” in anticipation of the arrival of asylum seekers, including participating in “operational readiness exercises and the mobilization of resources as needed to ensure the facilitation of lawful trade and travel.”

“Additionally, we will be reinforcing staffing, well in advance, to ensure that we can address any contingency, with support from interagency partners,” according to the agency, which said it will “not allow a large group to enter the United States unlawfully.”

Apodaca explained that grassroots immigrant rights organizations are scrambling to gather resources in anticipation of the asylum seekers’ arrival. The organizer said they are anticipating chaos at the border should Trump move to shut it down. 

“We are fighting a very clever group of people who use very simple, basic language to promote a racist agenda—and it’s working,” Apodaca said. 

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