TUCSON — Border Patrol officials have begun releasing migrant families in Tucson because they lack the space to detain them and immigration officials are unable to take them into custody.
The practice has been going on for about a month, according to the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which covers most of Arizona’s border with Mexico.
It was a central topic of a meeting Border Patrol officials in Tucson held Friday with local law-enforcement, elected and community leaders.
The number of migrant families released in Tucson has surpassed the ability of local nonprofits to house them. This past week, the city of Tucson and Pima County opened temporary overflow shelters to house migrants, although those shelters are once again empty, at least for now.
The goal of Friday’s meeting is to “alleviate some of the stressors that we’ve been seeing with this increase in people,” said Pete Bidegain, a special-operations supervisor for the Border Patrol.
“One of the major concerns that was brought up numerous times in the meeting really comes down to better communication between federal officials, county officials, city officials,” he added.
The meeting, which lasted about an hour and a half, was closed to the press and public. It followed a similar meeting U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., hosted Thursday in Phoenix.
But Friday’s meeting was directly organized by Border Patrol officials in Tucson as a goodwill effort to bring together everyone involved in the humanitarian response and come up with a better coordinated response.
One of the big takeaways, Bidegain said, is the possibility of giving nonprofits and city leaders an earlier heads-up as soon as border officials notice any increases in the numbers of migrants they encounter at the border.
“That heads-up may be hours or it may be days,” he said. “But any type of communication, just keeping that open, is going to help us and it’s also going to help them.”
Border Patrol has not disclosed how many migrants it has released directly into Tucson in the past month since it began the practice, which the agency officially refers to as migrants released on their own recognizance.
As they are released, the migrants are issued notices to appear in court at later dates.
The direct releases of migrants add to an already unique situation that has strained existing resources in Tucson.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that normally takes custody of asylum-seeking families once they have been processed, has continued releasing families in Tucson.
That includes migrants apprehended in the Tucson sector as well as migrants who crossed through the Yuma area. Pima County officials estimate that ICE has released about 7,000 migrants in Tucson in the past eight months.
On top of that, Border Patrol officials in El Paso have been busing hundreds of migrants each day to Tucson so they can be released there instead of El Paso, which has also been struggling greatly with the sheer number of migrant families.
As a result, when ICE is unable to take migrants into custody, Border Patrol has begun releasing families directly in Tucson. Border Patrol works with nonprofits to find space to house the migrants, but it doesn’t always work out.
“If they are at capacity, that’s when the decision is made to release people out into the community, and that’s traditionally been done … at local transportation hubs,” Bidegain said.
That’s something both city leaders and nonprofits want to avoid. Their concern is that, if left to fend for themselves, families will end up stranded or unable to navigate the transportation system in an unfamiliar country.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who attended the Friday meeting, said that was one of the big concerns he took from the Border Patrol discussion.
“If the loaded buses from Border Patrol can go not to the bus station, but to the site of where the (nonprofit) is located, that would be a big help because that saves us a lot as a community,” Rothschild said.
Another concern Rothschild brought up was that migrant families from El Paso were being transported to and released in Tucson. He said such a move made little sense, especially when the asylum-seeking families were headed to the Eastern United States.
“If they’re moving east, why would you ever move them west?” he said.
Border Patrol officials said they would consider the concerns. As a result of the meeting, Bidegain said, they also agreed to create a steering committee to help implement some of the ideas discussed.
The committee would be composed of nonprofits, as well as representatives from the local, state and federal levels.