Federal officials are resorting to capacity mitigation strategies from the last surge in 2019 to address the current strain placed by rising migration trends along the southern border, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.
In an email obtained by The Monitor, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced Monday morning to his staff the activation of the Volunteer Force.
The volunteers, to be composed of federal employees, will help address the “overwhelming numbers of migrants seeking asylum” along the southwest border — a shift in tone from a week ago when Mayorkas denounced the existence of a crisis in a White House news conference.
The force was used in 2019 to free up U.S. Border Patrol agents and officers from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations.
“No experience is required, just a willingness to serve and perform non-law enforcement duties that will help free up CBP law enforcement to continue to perform their critical front line duties to protect and secure our borders,” read the webpage for Volunteer Force, which was linked in the email. “For the nearly 1,000 of you that volunteered for similar duty in 2019, you know what a positive and rewarding experience it was to help CBP provide temporary care for the many migrants who sought entry into the U.S.”
The apprehensions of adults, children and families by U.S. Border Patrol are increasing rapidly on par with the surge of 2019.
At that time, about 11,600 children crossed the border through the Rio Grande Valley from October 2018 to February 2019. Currently, the total stands above 11,700, according to preliminary records obtained by The Monitor.
In comparison with the same time period last year, the number of children crossing alone increased by 121%.
Across the entire border, agents took about 30,000 children into federal custody this year, about double from last year when they took in 15,300.
Facilities in the Valley are overtaxed and agents are strained.
As of Saturday, about 3,000 people were in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol in the Valley area alone.
During the last surge in 2019, Border Patrol facilities in the Valley had a holding capacity of about 2,000. The number was greatly reduced when they lost their largest holding facility that could hold about 850 people last year.
Though they opened a temporary facility in Donna in February, capacity throughout the agency is reduced to 25% due to COVID, according to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar.
Migrants should only be detained for as long as three days in those facilities, but the influx is creating lag.
Last week, Border Patrol had 4,700 under its custody across the border. About 1,400 of them were held in custody above the 72-hour period, and over 700 exceeded 120 hours in their custody, according to records obtained by The Monitor.
To ease the strain on the facilities, certain asylum-seeking families started to get released into the community in late January. It’s a common practice employed by Border Patrol sectors faced with little to no capacity in their buildings or in detention facilities managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Migrants are released in Valley cities like McAllen, Brownsville and Harlingen, but the agency began expanding the area where they send them.
Rep. Cuellar said migrants are bussed to Laredo and will soon be flown to El Paso. Nonprofit organizations in each city are assisting them when they arrive by conducting COVID-19 tests and helping them coordinate travel plans.
Those who are not able to arrange travel plans stay overnight in places like the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s respite center in McAllen. Harlingen city commissioners recently decided to use a public building if they receive more migrants than the local homeless shelter can accommodate.
“This is a crisis for our local communities,” Rep. Cuellar said via a statement shared Monday. “Non-profits and local governments, who are already struggling from the pandemic, are scrounging for COVID-19 tests, food, and housing for these migrants.”
Mayor Jim Darling said Monday after a city meeting that while non-governmental organizations, like Catholic Charities, are taking on the greatest expense to help migrants, the city is also spending resources devoted to the federal issue.
“It’s the rest of the country, not us, that’s benefitting from it,” Darling said, referring to the migrants who mostly leave the Valley after entering the United States.
Darling said the city provides transportation to spillover sites. They also set up a tent for COVID testing with lights. And, during the freeze, they provided heaters and generators at the respite center.
“This is our third time doing this. This time with COVID it’s a little more serious from a health standpoint and complicated from logistics,” Darling said.
Local and state law enforcement are working to fill roadways, with agents being pulled away from their duties to respond to the surge since January, Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra said last week.
Last week, the Texas Department of Public Safety sent more troopers to Starr County in response to an increase in human smuggling attempts trying to circumvent Title 42 expulsions.
The federal code allows migrants coming in to be immediately expelled from the country. Most of those apprehended by Border Patrol are expelled to Mexico.
Carlos Rodriguez, CBP Hidalgo Port of Entry director, said asylum seekers are also approaching the U.S. via the bridge to request asylum, but many are expelled under the same authority.
“There might be a chance that we’re going to lose that authority to return them back to Mexico,” Rodriguez said Monday during a meeting with city commissioners.
So far, 11,850 people requested asylum at ports of entry across the southern border. CBP expelled 7,361 of them, according to the agency’s website.
“I think Title 42 should be kept right now,” Rep. Cuellar said, adding, “and I think MPP should be modified — make it a little more humane and work with Mexico — and start looking at MPP also to have an orderly way … for people to ask for their asylum.”
The Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, was a Trump-era program that forced migrants to wait in Mexico for their immigration court hearings where they experienced hunger, unemployment, kidnapping, assault and murder.
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez made other suggestions in a letter addressed to the Biden administration Monday asking them to visit South Texas.
“According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there were 1,800 apprehensions in my district in a single day last week,” the letter stated.
Since then, however, apprehensions kept growing and hit 2,620 on March 5, according to preliminary records shared with The Monitor.
“There were also 10 admissions to our hospitals per day last week as a result of the influx and no indications that these numbers will decrease,” Gonzalez added.
He proposed three solutions: increasing human resources and facilities; using medical facilities north of the Falfurrias checkpoint when local institutions are full; and creating a process for requesting asylum from the migrant’s home country.
Late Monday evening, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would be visiting Mission, it’s expected to be an extension of discourse between state and federal authorities who disagree on what to call the unraveling situation in South Texas.
“Yes it is a crisis, no it isn’t a crisis — it doesn’t matter what you call it,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said. “Just handle it.”