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Talking ICE: Explaining the surge of immigrants released in Arizona

Editor’s note: KTAR News’ Martha Maurer sat down Thursday with Henry Lucero, Phoenix field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The topic: understanding why hundreds of immigrants have been released from ICE custody and dropped off at churches across Arizona.

ICE: This is standard practice

On Monday, about 100 immigrants, adults and children alike, arrived at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix. Most had arrived at the Arizona-Mexico border in recent days and weeks, asking for asylum.

The following evening, roughly 100 others were bused to First Congregational United Church of Christ in Phoenix. Similar drop-offs have occurred at churches in Tucson and Yuma.

“This happens every day across the Southwest border,” Lucero said. “However, the volume has increased … because CBP [Customs and Border Protection] is apprehending much larger numbers than previous weeks and months.”

Lucero linked the increase of drop-offs to larger numbers of immigrants arriving at the border. In at least one Arizona border sector, Yuma, apprehensions of immigrants this year are on track to double from a year ago.

The Yuma sector had previously seen a dramatic decrease in apprehension over the decade prior.

It is estimated that about 85 percent of immigrants who attempt to cross the border into Arizona are from Guatemala, Lucero said.

Claiming asylum

Most of the family units recently released by ICE are from Central America.

After families seeking asylum come across a border patrol agent after crossing or show up at a port of entry, they are interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer to determine the credibility of their claim.

“About 80 to 90 percent of asylum officers grant that they have a positive finding, which takes them to the next level, to an immigration judge,” Lucero said.

Immigration judges ultimately decide whether an asylum case can go forward. If they decide the merits are not there, the immigrant is deported.

The Flores agreement

The Flores agreement, a 1997 legal settlement, prevents family units from being detained for more than 20 days, and this is leading to parents and their children being released from ICE custody.

A family unit is described as a mother, father or guardian with a child under 18.

Because of the large number of family units arriving at the border and being processed, ICE has been releasing some even before the 20-day limit.

“Often, they’re only in custody 12-13 days and they are then released to continue their process,” Lucero said.

This is likely a reason why so many families make the journey from Central America all the way to the U.S.

“The consequences are not really there,” he said. “Even if you get to a point where you’re released from custody for two or three years, at that final hearing you may not show up because you feel your case if not going to be approved.”

At that point, he said, ICE dedicates resources to look for those families and remove them from the U.S.

That’s no easy task.

“Two percent of all family units that are apprehended ultimately get repatriated,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent are going through proceedings or we are ultimately looking for them right now.”

That is a big reason why ICE isn’t expanding residential centers. Until Congress passes a law that changes the Flores agreement, Lucero expects to see a continued draw of families coming to the U.S. via the border.

In September, the Trump administration moved to detain migrant families longer.

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