The Trump administration reinstated a de facto catch-and-release policy for illegal immigrants nabbed crossing the border in Texas, with Border Patrol agents being told Wednesday not to even bother turning them over for speedy deportation because there was no bed space, a top agent said.
The problem, said Brandon Judd, an agent and president of the National Border Patrol Council, is that illegal immigration has surged once again after dipping during the early months of President Trump’s tenure.
That has left the deportation agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, struggling to find beds to hold the illegal immigrants. As a result, Border Patrol agents who bring apprehended people to ICE are turned away.
“We’re going to have to release them out our front door,” Mr. Judd said. “Even if we try to turn them over to them, they’re just not going to take them.”
He said ICE’s San Antonio office, which handles most of the traffic from the Texas border, said it would have to refuse to take any family units the Border Patrol tries to turn over and will soon reject even non-family migrants.
Later Wednesday, Mr. Judd said, ICE’s El Paso office told agents it also was at capacity and was refusing family units.
“The moment we start releasing them out our front door, you’re going to see a huge increase take place in the numbers coming across,” he said.
The NBPC endorsed Mr. Trump in last year’s election, and more than a year later the president still touts that endorsement in campaign-style speeches.
Mr. Judd said the rhetoric from the president is good and had an immediate effect earlier this year in persuading migrants not to bother making the journey north. The Border Patrol set a modern-day record low of slightly more than 11,100 illegal immigrants nabbed in April.
But as catch-and-release continued, word seeped back to home countries and the effects of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric waned. More than 26,000 illegal immigrants were arrested at the border last month, Mr. Judd said.
“The word got back to all of these countries that hey, the catch-and-release hasn’t ended,” he said. “The people that are supposed to be enforcing President Trump’s policy, they’re just not. They’re not following through on the promises he made.”
ICE didn’t deny the problem. Instead, the agency said it has to prioritize cases and is struggling with how to comply with court rulings on treatment of illegal immigrant families traveling together.
An official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, insisted the agency won’t end up issuing notices to appear — essentially just notifications of future immigration hearings. The official said CBP will pursue expedited removal or speedy deportation.
“We are in the business of catch and remove, not release,” the official said.
Tyler Houlton, acting press secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, suggested the problem was a lack of support from the courts for Mr. Trump’s mission.
“We enforce the law but are severely constrained by litigation, court rulings and debilitating legal loopholes that limit our ability to carry out our mission,” he said. “These limitations are exactly why the president has proposed his immigration enforcement priorities and why we are working with Congress to address these problems.”
But Mr. Judd said the department’s policies are getting in the way of the president’s agenda.
“The people that are supposed to be enforcing President Trump’s policy, they’re just not. They’re not following through on the promises he made,” Mr. Judd said.
His comments tracked with those of Chris Crane, the president of the National ICE Council, which represents deportation officers. In a letter to Mr. Trump this week, first reported by The Washington Times, Mr. Crane said the president’s top lieutenants were preventing him from hearing what is really going on.
“While officers view the President’s position on enforcement as courageous, the Trump administration has left all of the Obama managers and leadership in place, a group that ICE Officers know after the last eight years to be completely incompetent, corrupt and anti-enforcement,” Mr. Crane wrote.
He asked for better lines of communication directly with the president.
The White House declined to comment Wednesday.
Mr. Trump on Tuesday nominated Tom Homan, who had been serving as acting director of ICE, to hold the position permanently. Kevin McAleenan, who has been acting commissioner of CBP, was nominated months ago and is awaiting action by the Senate.
Both men have earned praise from those who want stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
But Mr. Crane and Mr. Judd said holdovers from the Obama era in the agencies and at the Homeland Security Department put up hurdles.
“Obama holdovers are still running the program, running the show. We’re putting ourselves right back into the same situation we were under the Obama administration,” he said.
Catch-and-release was one of those issues. Agents said they would arrest illegal immigrants at the border only to be ordered to release them immediately after giving them a notice to appear.
While the Obama administration considered that enforcement, to illegal immigrants it was an invitation to come to the U.S. Once released, they could slip into the shadows and blend in with the 11 million other illegal immigrants, who are gaining a foothold in society.
Central Americans even called the notices to appear “permisos,” or free passes.
Mr. Judd said Border Patrol agents under the Obama administration last year were ordered to release newly arrested illegal immigrants with notices to appear. That ended under Mr. Trump, and agents were able to turn illegal immigrants over to ICE for holding and processing — though ICE would still issue notices to appear and release them.
“The catch-and-release program never ended, and once that information got back to countries throughout the world, we started to see an increase,” he said.
He said it’s not just Latin America. Agents in San Diego have apprehended dozens of people from Asian countries so far in fiscal year 2018, which began Oct. 1 — including 64 from India.