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“OK, Mr Trump, you don’t want them released, show me where
you are going to hold them – show me the building,” said Ruben
Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, a Roman Catholic
charity in El Paso, Texas, that gives shelter to migrant
Garcia’s group received more than 400 migrants released by
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement just between Monday and
Wednesday, the day Trump announced tougher measures to curb
“They are releasing them not because they want to do catch
and release, but because detention centers don’t have enough
space,” said Garcia.
That underscores one potential problem of ending the
practice of “catch and release” – almost half the immigrants
apprehended by U.S. officials are now Central American families
or children, and only a tiny number of detention spaces are
available for those categories of immigrants.
Trump did announce plans to increase the number of family
detention centers, but establishing them will take time and
could face legal challenges, legal experts on immigration said.
A Reuters review of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data
shows an accelerating trend of Central American families who
hand themselves in at the border and are released while awaiting
deportation or a decision on an asylum request.
In the last three months of 2016, the number of people –
almost all of them families and children – who handed themselves
in to agents along the U.S.-Mexican border rose by a quarter
versus the same period the year before, CBP data shows.
Agents apprehended a total of 136,670 people crossing the
Mexican border, the highest number since 2008, and 48 percent of
those were unaccompanied children or families with children.
Nearly 45,000 parents with children were apprehended in the
October-December quarter, but the border currently has beds for
only around 3,300 people in this category of immigrants, mostly
at the Karnes and Dilley detention centers in Texas, according
to ICE data from 2016.
Because most of the families are from Central America, they
cannot immediately be turned around and sent back to Mexico.
Lack of space in detention centers for parents with children
means that almost all such migrants, who are mostly fleeing
poverty and violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are
fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet, given a court date and
Many end up requesting asylum, a process that can take five
or more years to be resolved, immigration lawyers say. Even
without requesting asylum, it can take years to deport families
through the United States’ bunged-up immigration courts.
Trump could expand a policy practiced under former President
Barack Obama of using military bases to temporarily house more
immigrants. The Fort Bliss base in El Paso has housed thousands
of children since September, for example.
He could also explore ways to refit other existing
facilities to help handle the flood of families.
Building more detention centers like Karnes and Dilley will
take longer. They also typically face legal challenges by civil
rights lawyers concerned about the living conditions in them.
Trump could also seek to expand an Obama program aimed at
increasing the number of Central American asylum seekers who
make their initial claim from their home country.
In the long term, he could ask Mexico to let immigrants make
the asylum claims from there, although ties between the two
countries are now seriously frayed because of Trump’s vow to
force Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border.
Garcia, the shelter director, acknowledged that if Trump was
finally successful in opening thousands more detention spaces
for families, that would slow the numbers coming.
“The word would spread that the probability they will be
locked up and put on a plane had become much higher,” Garcia
said. Central Americans are usually deported from the United
States on flights back to their home countries.
“WANT TO BE APPREHENDED”
While the number of “turn-ins” – those who hand themselves
in to U.S. authorities – are highest around McAllen, Texas, the
jump has been particularly noticeable in the El Paso sector of
the border with Mexico. Here, 60 percent of the immigrants
apprehended between October and December were children or
For years a quiet spot on the immigration map, El Paso saw
5,200 families apprehended in the period, nearly three times as
many compared to the same period a year ago, and 1,972, or
double, the number of unaccompanied children.
U.S Border Patrol agent Jose Romero has observed the trend
first-hand along the tall, rust-colored fence punctuated with
rural border crossings stretching some 40 miles (65 km) from El
Paso to beyond Tornillo, Texas.
“A lot of the traffic we are seeing right now is family
groups … coming across and they are looking for an agent right
away to turn themselves in,” Romero said, calling it a change
from the past, when more people were trying to sneak in
undetected. “They want to be apprehended.”
The fence, finished in 2010, ends abruptly near pecan
orchards and irrigation ditches on the Texan side, across the
Rio Grande from Mexico’s drug war-torn Valle de Juarez, a cotton-farming region now littered with burned-out homes.
Last February, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and
Obama’s secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker, opened a major
new border crossing from Tornillo on the Texan side, to
Guadalupe on the Mexican side, hoping to boost trade between the
By November, truck traffic was still light across the
Instead, ICE opened a temporary holding center, with 500
places in white tents on the asphalt on the U.S. side of the
bridge, to help process some of the surging numbers of migrant
families apprehended by U.S. officials in the surrounding area.
(Additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez, Lizbeth Diaz and
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