Why The Feds Are Dropping Migrant Families At Bus Stations In The Inland Empire

A U.S. Border Patrol agent takes a man into custody in this December 2018 file photo. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Migrant families who are being released pending asylum hearings are being dropped off at Inland Empire bus stations with no bus tickets, and sometimes no money.

Immigrant advocates said last week that they observed roughly 60 adults and children dropped off at the Greyhound bus station in San Bernardino, often with no resources. The Border Patrol confirmed that agents from its El Centro sector have been dropping off migrants at the station since last Wednesday.

So what's going on? First, some background.

This comes as more asylum-seeking families with children from Central America have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Border Patrol data, more than 58,000 families were apprehended at the southwest border in April, compared with 23,000 families in October.

A STRAINED SYSTEM

Officials say the increase in asylum seekers is straining their detention capacity at border entry points.

Asylum seekers are typically turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but because families with children can't legally be detained for more than 20 days, tens of thousands of families have been released with orders to appear in immigration court.

In an emailed statement Monday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials cited "capacity limitations" at Border Patrol stations and the limited capacity of ICE to accept family units as the reason why CBP began releasing "non-criminal, processed family units" on March 19. To date, CBP officials said, the agency has released 40,000 family unit members with orders to appear in immigration court; ICE has released approximately 180,000 family unit members since Dec. 21.

According to the statement, CBP began transporting migrant families from facilities at various points along the border starting May 10 "to leverage available capacity for processing and holding." Some families have been flown from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to San Diego; others were transferred from the Border Patrol's Yuma sector to El Centro, according to the agency.

Officials said they do seek other arrangements before resorting to the practice of taking families to bus stations. "Whenever possible" the releases are coordinated with non-governmental organizations that can assist the families, the agency said.

But not always:

"As NGOs have reached their capacities, CBP has released family units at transportation hubs during daylight hours when the weather does not endanger those released," according to the emailed statement.

A MOVE AWAY FROM THE BORDER

For months now, migrants have been dropped off at bus stations in border states. But local immigrant advocates said this is the first time they've observed it happening this close to the Los Angeles area.

That's how we got here. So far, it seems the migrant families are only being released inland: El Centro border agents said they are releasing people in their area of operations, which includes Indio, Riverside County, and San Bernardino County.

But local immigrant advocates said they are concerned about the state of the families they've encountered after they were dropped off.

Some of the adults and kids left in San Bernardino last week appeared sick, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Some families were taken in by volunteers or local shelters, he said, while others continued on to other destinations by bus.

One group, the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said via email that they'd assisted 32 families on Thursday and that "some of these families didn't even have access to a shower or clean clothes for over 10 days."

Border Patrol officials said in a statement Friday that people in their custody are fed and given medical screenings. The agency said family units are being released at bus stations so that they can reach their final destination as they wait to appear in immigration court.

Meanwhile, El Centro's neighboring San Diego Border Patrol sector is not directly releasing people at this time, the agency said, but is turning them over to ICE.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC.