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Overwhelmed by families, Border Patrol releasing detainees in Yuma

(Getty Images Photo/John Moore)

PHOENIX – Overwhelmed by the number of Central American families being apprehended for illegally crossing from Mexico into southwest Arizona, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Thursday it would start releasing detainees in Yuma.

“Yuma Sector’s experienced a significant rise in the number of family units arrested, and this demographic is challenging because they can’t be immediately returned to their country because their country is not Mexico,” Justin Kallinger, Border Patrol operations officer for the Yuma Sector, told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Thursday.

Kallinger said processing centers weren’t designed to house such large numbers of families and young children as they wait for their asylum cases to be heard.

“Due to this capacity issue at Yuma, and the continued humanitarian crisis, we’ve begun identifying detainees for potential release in the Yuma area,” he said.

Later Thursday, it was revealed that border officials had adopted a plan to release some families without transferring them to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, which manages their deportation cases.

Families are typically released with notices to appear in immigration court due to legal restrictions on detaining them and lack of holding space. Until now, Customs and Border Protection has detained them briefly before turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, generally within 72 hours, to be released pending the outcome of their immigration cases.

Kallinger wouldn’t say how many migrants would be released in Yuma or where exactly they’d be dropped off after receiving court dates.

The Yuma Sector patrols 126 miles of border between the Yuma-Pima County line in Arizona and the Imperial Sand Dunes in California. It is responsible for Yuma, La Paz and Mojave counties in Arizona, parts of California and all of Nevada.

According to government statistics, 17,578 family units and 2,760 unaccompanied minors were apprehended in the sector between October and February.

For months, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been releasing thousands of detainees in Arizona, many in the Phoenix area.

Between Dec. 21 and March 20, ICE released 18,500 migrants from custody in the state, the agency told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Wednesday.

Gov. Doug Ducey has criticized the federal government for its failure to communicate with local authorities about the drop-offs, which have been happening at churches and bus stations.

“What Customs and Border Patrol and ICE is doing in terms of surprising communities, dropping off asylum seekers and refugees with no forewarning, doing it at bus stops and random locations, is just no way to run a government,” Ducey told KTAR News’ Mac & Gaydos on Wednesday.

The released migrants rarely stay in Arizona. They generally depart to stay with family members throughout the country as soon as travel plans can be made after they’ve been released.

Volunteer groups have been stepping in to take care of the people until they can travel, usually within a day or two. But those groups have seen their resources stretched thin by the sheer numbers.

Kallinger said the Border Patrol has been working with nongovernmental organizations in Yuma to make the transition “as seamless as possible,” but he didn’t go into details.

“We’ve been fostering a good relationship with state, local and county community leaders,” he said.

Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls said was city is working with various nongovernmental organizations to make sure families released by the Border Patrol have temporary housing, food, medical care and help with traveling to their intended destinations.

Kallinger acknowledged that the situation was difficult for all involved.

“We understand what the community is going through, and we’re working hard to make sure that we can do the least amount of impact,” he said.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Peter Samore and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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