Originally published by Politico
The United States is for the first time sending illegal border-crossers to other cities for processing, transporting more than 3,000 each week from southern Texas and Arizona to other locations as the government struggles to deal with surging numbers of nearly 100,000 migrants a month crossing the southern border.
The Trump administration is flying migrants to San Diego and Del Rio, Texas, and busing them to El Centro, Calif., and Laredo, Texas, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official familiar with the plan. There, they are being processed — which includes photographs, health screenings, fingerprints and background checks — before they are often released and told to return for a court hearing at a later date.
It is the first time in history the U.S. has transported immigrants to other localities because federal officials can't process them in time at their original point of entry, the official said. The government is required by law to process these border-crossers within 72 hours.
“There’s no room at facilities for them. It’s getting so backlogged,” said Thomas Homan, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who remains in touch with the White House. “It’s a national crisis. They have to do what’s best.”
CBP quietly approved the plan in early May to work with ICE to begin relocating immigrants from Rio Grande Valley, Texas, and Yuma, Ariz., to other locations in the southwestern part of the United States. The plan will continue for the “foreseeable future,” the CBP official said.
Some parts of the plan, which began May 7, have been reported but new details emerged in recent days based on interviews with a half dozen current and former Department of Homeland Security administration officials.
The program gained attention after Florida officials vehemently and loudly protested a proposal to fly migrants into heavily Democratic counties, where there is extra space in facilities built for hurricanes. Federal officials insist that Florida is not part of the plan, but several local officials said otherwise. The administration has declined to release a copy of the full plan.
“False reporting,” Trump tweeted in response to news reports in Florida. “There are no plans to send migrants to Northern or Coastal Border facilities, including Florida.”
Trump’s tweet was technically correct — but it didn’t tell the full story.
His administration is sending migrants to another third region of the country — the southwest, according to the CBP official.
And the administration is still considering sending them to Florida and other locations along the northern border in the future, including Detroit and Buffalo, according to two DHS officials. The government did not provide the costs of the program.
During the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, smaller numbers of Mexican immigrants were sometimes processed where they crossed and then transported to other parts of the country before being sent back to their native country, according to three former DHS officials who worked during the last two administrations.
These people were generally transported to other cities after processing so they would not return to Mexico in the same place. The former officials said the government found if migrants were returned to where they had crossed, many people would find the same smugglers who had helped them cross the border previously. Sometimes, however, border-crossers were simply sent to other locations to be housed or assess custody, the former officials said.
The Trump administration has been scrambling to cope with a rise in immigrants crossing at the southwest border, particularly along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, that has reached its highest level in years. Border Patrol arrested nearly99,000 migrants at the border in April, many from Central America.
Trump had recently threatened to send illegal immigrants to "sanctuary cities” that limit their cooperation with federal immigration law. But federal officials insist the processing plan is unrelated to that threat.
Two of the former DHS officials say a multi-agency operation of this magnitude normally would have been approved by both DHS and the White House. Neither DHS nor the White House would say whether they had signed off on the plan, however.
“Due to the incredible number of aliens crossing the border, some CBP processing centers are so overwhelmed, they cannot process everyone quickly enough,” an ICE official said. “ICE currently has an agreement with them, which allows CBP to use ICE planes to safely and efficiently transport migrants to less-crowded facilities for processing.”
Five planes a week are flying to Del Rio, Texas, while three planes are flying to San Diego each week, the CBP official said. Each plane hold about 130 migrants.
Four buses, each with 47 passengers, travel 200 miles to Laredo each day. About 125 people per day are driven in vans about 60 miles to El Centro.
“The system is full. We've been very clear about that,” acting Homeland Security Security Kevin McAleenan said last weekend on CBS News. “So what we're trying to do is plan to be able to manage that capacity safely, to bring people where we can process them efficiently. And as a planning factor we're looking at all options for being able to detain people.”