A surging number of immigrant families crossing the border in recent weeks has led to overcrowding in border patrol stations, and many of those families will now be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, according to two senior Department of Homeland Security officials.
From there, the families will either be released with ankle monitors and a court date to make their case for asylum or put on flights to be quickly deported, the officials said.
As of Saturday, border patrol processing facilities were holding migrants 585 percent above capacity. In the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest sector for border crossings, there were 6,671 immigrants being held in facilities meant for 965 people, according to one of the officials, leading to the spread of Covid-19, other viruses and lice among migrants.
To deal with the overcrowding and attempt to make more room, border patrol has been releasing undocumented migrant families into the United States without court dates or any way to track their whereabouts. More than 50,000 migrants were recently released without court dates and given a date to report to an ICE field office within 60 days, but approximately 15,000 did not show, the DHS officials said.
Now, in an unprecedented move, an agency usually tasked with detention, enforcement and removal of undocumented immigrants, ICE officers will be performing health screenings, offering Covid vaccines, telling immigrants their legal rights and connecting them with non-governmental organizations that can help them, the officials said. Asylum officers will continue making initial determinations for asylum-seeking migrants, either at the ICE facilities or by phone, they said.
Spokespeople for ICE, CBP and DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday night.
The Biden administration has come under pressure from both sides of the immigration debate for its handling of families during the pandemic.
Immigration advocacy groups have argued in a lawsuit that the Trump-initiated policy known as Title 42 that expels immigrants back to Mexico before they can make an asylum claim should be lifted for families. While Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently sought a court order to make Title 42 enforced more widely.
All unaccompanied children, some single adults and the vast majority of families are currently not being expelled under Title 42, in part because Mexico refuses to take back many families.