U.S. Border Patrol agents across the southern border are considering taking unprecedented action to combat the current high number of migrants in their custody, which could lead to the closure of checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere.
On Monday morning, nearly 14,000 migrants were in Border Patrol facilities across the border. Agents in the Valley also discussed the growing number at an emergency meeting over the weekend. Under pressure to process them according to the federally mandated 72-hour deadline, the agency began releasing hundreds to local communities.
By the afternoon, the respite center in McAllen — which is operated by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley — was so full it could no longer accept more people, though Border Patrol agents kept dropping them off.
Sister Norma Pimentel, the center’s executive director, paced back and forth between the two shelter locations in downtown McAllen. At around 5:30 p.m., groups of migrants were waiting inside and outside the shelter, hoping to be let inside.
Pimentel called Border Patrol for the second time to inform them they could not accept more people until the morning.
At least two other churches that had been preparing to handle overflow, Pimentel said, stepped in to accept migrants who could not stay in McAllen. One church in Mission took in 300 people.
The influx represents a processing challenge which has prompted Border Patrol to consider moving enforcement staff from several checkpoints and stations to processing duties, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Preparations were underway to possibly shut down multiple checkpoints temporarily in certain sectors across the southern border, as per the source.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, contacted the agency and said the proposal was submitted to their headquarters, but it would need to be approved before it’s implemented. Asked whether travel through the checkpoints would be affected if the measure gets the green light, Cuellar said no.
He did, however, express doubt that approval to close certain checkpoints would be gained.
By Monday evening, the federal agency overseeing U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security, took another measure to reduce the number of migrants in CBP custody.
“Beginning today, certain family units who are not able to be expelled under Title 42 will be placed in expedited removal proceedings. Expedited removal provides a lawful, more accelerated procedure to remove those family units who do not have a basis under U.S. law to be in the United States,” the agency wrote in a statement.
Under this process, which was greatly expanded under the Trump administration in 2017, migrants can be deported by low-level immigration officers instead of a judge.
Other factors continue to affect the number of agents available for processing.
In a news release Monday, Cuellar said about 80 agents in the Rio Grande Valley tested positive for COVID-19.
Another 17 agents stationed in the Laredo sector also tested positive for the virus this week, he said in the release.
“Additionally, 27% of the unaccompanied children deported this week tested positive for COVID-19 with Brownsville experiencing a 15% positivity rate,” Cuellar said in the release. “Border Patrol is also sending immigrants directly to the McAllen COVID-19 testing site.”
The Democratic lawmaker urged the federal government to “prioritize the health and safety of border agents and border communities amidst a COVID-19 surge in the Rio Grande Valley,” and said the area experienced a 478% increase in encounters in June 2021 compared to June 2020.