The Homeland Security Department has ruled out shipping illegal immigrants from the overwhelmed border to other locations such as Buffalo and Florida to be processed and released, the acting secretary said Sunday.
Kevin McAleenan said the department had been considering it but decided it makes more sense to continue to try to process and release them at the border, rather than spread the pain to other communities who so far have been immune to the border crisis.
That was a reversal from Friday, when a border official told reporters they were, in fact, looking “across the entire nation” for places to ship the migrants for processing.
It also eased the worries of officials in Florida and along the northern border, who’d been contacted and told they may be in line to handle some of the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants surging into the U.S. each week.
“We do have stations in Florida. We have stations on the northern border. They’re very small stations. They have a few agents that are busy patrolling their areas,” Mr. McAleenan said. “There wasn’t going to be an effective use of resources.”
The fact that officials were pondering the idea is a sign of how overwhelmed the border is.
Several border communities have declared states of emergency, saying they no longer can handle the people being caught then released into their communities.
Homeland Security officials say what they’re seeing at the border is unprecedented.
While the overall number of illegal immigrants snared at the border is not yet at record levels, the flow now is mostly unaccompanied children or families.
They’re drawn to the U.S. by lax laws.
Families can’t be held beyond 20 days, and cases usually take at least twice that time — so border authorities are forced to process and release them as quickly as possible. Once released, they usually head for bus stations, where nonprofit organizations are on hand to offer them help.
Yet the numbers of crossers are so high that agents are having problems completing the processing.
Shipping some to other locations was meant to relieve the pressure on areas such as western Arizona, southern Texas and El Paso at the Texas-New Mexico line, which are particularly stressed by the surge.
On Friday, a border official briefing reporters said the agency was looking at locations along the northern border and coastal states, where there’s already Border Patrol infrastructure in place.
“Wherever CBP has a footprint and has the capacity to accept aliens to process,” the official said. “Anywhere where there’s a Border Patrol facility that has computers and ample holding space.”
Mr. McAleenan said there are more than 16,000 people in custody of Customs and Border Protection, in facilities designed in the 1980s and 1990s when the flow was mostly adults who stayed for just a few hours.
Without the option of Florida or northern border states, Mr. McAleenan said Homeland Security will push to have the military help expand detention capacity and will use other southwestern border facilities.
Already flights have begun going from southern Texas to San Diego, where the Border Patrol has processing capability, and migrants are being bused from Yuma, Arizona, to El Centro, California.
Babysitting and shuttling all those migrants are taking a major toll on the Border Patrol. A top official said last week that 50 percent of agents’ time is now spent on transportation, providing medical care, feeding and otherwise catering to migrants, rather than out on the line patrolling.