Overwhelmed and underprepared, U.S. authorities are releasing migrant families on the Mexican border without notices to appear in immigration court or sometimes without any paperwork at all — a time-saving move that has left migrants confused. The rapid releases ease pressure on the Border Patrol and its badly overcrowded holding facilities but shifts work to Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, the agency that enforces immigration laws within the United States. Families are released with booking records — when they get paperwork at all — though only parents are photographed and fingerprinted.
The Border Patrol began the unusual practice last week in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley which has seen the biggest increase in the number of migrant families and unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Last week, the agency added instructions to report to an ICE office within 60 days to adults’ booking documents. But some got no documents at all, including dozens at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in the Texas border city of Mission, where about 100 migrants released by U.S. authorities had been arriving each night to sleep on mats in classrooms in a shuttered elementary school.
Carlos Enrique Linga, 27, waited at the shelter for a week without documents along with his 5-year-old daughter, hoping to join a friend in Tennessee. His wife is still in Guatemala with their 2-year-old twin daughters and a 3-month-old. Linga was unwilling to leave the shelter until he got documents and was asking Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley for help. “We hope they can help with our papers so that we can move on, work and send (money) to my family,” said Linga, whose home in Guatemala was destroyed by storms in November. “The church has told us that there are mistakes sometimes. Because there are so many people, they forget.”
Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, said it stopped issuing court notices in some cases because preparing even one of the documents often takes hours. Migrants undergo background checks and are tested for COVID-19. The agency didn’t answer questions about how many migrants have been released without court notices or without documents at all. Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley, knows of 10 to 15 families released without any paperwork since last week, an issue that has cropped up before when there are large increases in new arrivals.
“It’s a problem, it’s a situation we need to resolve, to make sure we follow up,” she said. Migrants will be issued notices to appear in court at their 60-day check-ins with ICE, according to a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans have not been made public. It is unclear how widespread the practice has been, but it is very common in Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.