The U.S. Border Patrol said Friday that it would fly hundreds of migrant families from south Texas to San Diego for processing and that it was considering flights to Detroit, Miami and Buffalo, New York.
The flights are the latest sign of how the Border Patrol is struggling to keep up with large numbers of Central American families that are reaching the U.S. border with Mexico, especially in Texas. Moving migrants to less crowded places is expected to distribute the workload more evenly.
Flights from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to San Diego were to begin Friday and continue indefinitely three times a week, with each flight carrying 120 to 135 people, said Douglas Harrison, the Border Patrol’s interim San Diego sector chief.
“We don’t have an end date,” Harrison told reporters. “This is a contingency operation. We’ve got to give the people in Rio Grande Valley some relief.”
Plans to fly from Rio Grande Valley to Detroit, Miami and Buffalo were preliminary, Harrison said. Authorities were researching available airports and the ability for non-profit groups to provide temporary assistance.
Already, U.S. authorities are moving four buses a day from the Rio Grande Valley to Laredo, Texas, about 100 miles (160 kilometres) away. There is also a daily flight contracted through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Del Rio, Texas, about 275 miles away (440 kilometres) away.
Agents in the Rio Grande Valley will collect biographical information and do a medical screening before sending migrants to San Diego on flights contracted by ICE, Harrison said. Migrants will go from San Diego International Airport to a Border Patrol station, where they will be fingerprinted, interviewed and screened again for medical problems. Processing at the station typically takes hours.
ICE will decide whether to release or detain the families in San Diego. Its practice since October has been to quickly release families in the U.S. with notices to appear in immigration court.
The flights could further strain the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of religious and civic groups that has provided temporary shelter to asylum-seeking families since large-scale releases began in October. San Diego County has sued the Trump administration to recover costs.
The San Diego Rapid Response Network said it would shelter migrants who are flown from Texas, just as the organization has done for thousands of migrants released in California. It said the potential influx “underscores the urgent need for a permanent, long-term migrant shelter in San Diego.”
Short flights cost the federal government about $6,000 each, officials said. It wasn’t immediately clear how much longer flights cost.
Border Patrol agents do some processing remotely by videoconference, but Harrison said stations in the Rio Grande Valley had run out of room even to do that. San Diego, he said, had room to hold migrants for up to 72 hours and staff to process them, which stations on the northern border lack.
Border arrests have surged since the summer to 98,977 in April, nearly three times what they were a year earlier. Nearly seven of every 10 came as families or were children travelling alone. The Rio Grande Valley was by far the busiest corridor, followed by El Paso, Texas.
The Border Patrol says it is detaining about 8,000 people at a time in the Rio Grande Valley, double its maximum capacity even with a 500-person tent it opened earlier this month.
The agency said Friday it would open four new temporary structures in the Rio Grande Valley that will have generators, lighting, and air conditioning. It released photos showing people lying on grass or pavement outside two of its stations with Mylar sheets for blankets.