WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is releasing inside the United States some immigrants who have crossed illegally into the country amid a surge in traffic across the Mexican border in southern Texas. But how many remains a mystery because the government won't disclose the number.
The Homeland Security Department started flying immigrants to Arizona from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas last month after the number of immigrants, including more than 48,000 children traveling on their own, overwhelmed the Border Patrol there.
U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has said the immigrants were mostly families from Central America. They were flown from Texas, released in Arizona, and told to report to an ICE office near where they were traveling within 15 days.
The administration would not say Friday how many immigrants were affected — hundreds or thousands — or how many of those immigrants subsequently reported back to the government after 15 days as directed. As many as 400 people were flown to Arizona during one weekend last month. Many were then dropped off at bus stations to travel to their original destinations in the U.S.
Most immigrants arrested at the border in southern Texas are from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala and cannot be immediately repatriated so they are handed over to ICE. The agency said after immigrants report back to its offices it would make "appropriate custody determinations" based on the government's enforcement priorities.
The perception that some immigrants could be getting a free pass into the U.S. could lead to even more attempts to cross the border. Illegal immigration increased heavily under a controversial "catch-and-release" strategy during the George W. Bush administration. Under that policy the government issued notices to appear in immigration court to migrants from countries other than Mexico until Bush stopped the practice.
Word that immigrant families are being released has spread south, and the Obama administration acknowledged this week that there is a perception that families and children traveling alone are being allowed to stay in the country freely. President Barack Obama's director of domestic policy, Cecilia Munoz, said such rumors are false and that immigrants caught at the border, regardless of their age, still face deportation.
In a draft memo from May 30, Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello said releasing immigrants serves as an incentive for other would-be immigrants to try to cross the border.
Illegal immigration along the border is still near record lows in many places, but the Rio Grande Valley has seen a tremendous increase and now leads all Border Patrol sectors in annual apprehensions with more than 148,000 arrests so far this fiscal year. The region is seeing more children traveling on their own and migrants from countries other than Mexico.
Earlier this week Obama described the influx of children traveling alone as an "urgent humanitarian situation." The Office of Management and Budget told Congress last month that the government would need an extra $1.4 billion to deal with the situation.
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