Earlier this week President Trump said his administration is no longer releasing migrants from custody. "We're going to catch," he said. "We're not going to release."
But that's not what's happening along the southwest border. Although overall apprehension numbers were down a bit last year, the number of migrant families apprehended there by immigration agents is reaching record numbers.
The influx is straining capacity at immigration holding cells and detention facilities. so, starting a few weeks ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began releasing hundreds of families from custody. The sudden releases are putting an enormous strain on nonprofits and communities along the border.
In the past, in some border communities — like El Paso, Texas — ICE either helped families arrange transportation to sponsors around the U.S. before they released them, or released families directly to local shelters and churches. If those shelters didn't have enough space, some families remained in custody until there was room.
Now ICE is no longer helping families with travel plans and is releasing them from custody regardless of whether shelters can accommodate them. Advocates worry that means some families may simply end up on the street, and are scrambling to find more housing and volunteers.
Outside El Paso, at the Holy Cross Retreat Center in Mesilla Park, N.M., volunteers recently lined up to greet a bus of migrant families being dropped off by ICE. About 20 parents and children stepped off the bus. A volunteer named Orlando Carrillo Jiménez ushered them into the retreat center.
Jiménez has a big personality and booming voice — he's a mariachi singer — and he cracks jokes to put the group at ease. He first welcomed them to the United States and apologized for what they had gone through with immigration officials. Then he explained what was about to happen. First, they would eat dinner — a hot, homemade meal. Next, they would receive medical evaluations. These families just completed long, sometimes treacherous journeys; adults and children alike may need medical attention.
After that, volunteers would help them make travel arrangements so they could get to their final destinations, usually with relatives in other parts of the country. Finally, the guests, as Jiménez calls them, could settle into their rooms.
Jiménez has this down to a science. He has done this nearly every week for the past two years, when Holy Cross started taking in migrant families.
"All these people are requesting asylum at the border," explained Father Tom Smith, the director of the Holy Cross Retreat Center. "They are seeking asylum because of the danger or the extreme poverty or whatever it is that they're dealing with in their own country. I just think it's important that we recognize that we are called to welcome the stranger."
The families typically stay for one or two nights before taking a bus or catching a flight to join their sponsors.
Holy Cross is part of a larger network of churches in El Paso and southern New Mexico that briefly house immigrants who have been released from custody.
Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter in El Paso, coordinates with ICE and these so-called hospitality centers, to ensure that families have a place to stay. The recent releases, however, have at times come with no coordination at all between ICE and the shelters for migrants.
Last weekend, ICE dropped about 100 immigrants at a Greyhound station in downtown El Paso with no advance notice. Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia got word of the imminent release and hurried over to meet the migrants. He quickly arranged for a nearby church to house the families and walked them there himself. Now Garcia is meeting with local officials to find more hospitality venues and volunteers.
Annunciation House is renting out 70 motel rooms in El Paso to help house families. The Catholic Diocese of El Paso set up an emergency shelter, with dozens of cots.
State Senator José Rodríguez represents El Paso. "I think it's unconscionable," he says. "Now they're just simply dumping them here in the border communities like El Paso and expecting the community to provide the support services."
In a statement, ICE Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Rodriguez said, "family units continue to cross the border at high volumes, as they face no consequence for their actions." She explained, because of legal limits on how long the agency can hold families, it no longer has the capacity to review and help with travel plans.
But Senator Rodríguez thinks this is all a political ploy, to create a sense of chaos on the border right before the midterm elections.
At the Holy Cross Retreat Center, where 20 immigrants had just arrived, the scene was controlled chaos. Volunteer Orlando Jiménez tried to figure out how to get a Guatemalan father and child to their sponsor in South Carolina. He called up the sponsor on a cell phone and a bus company on a landline, all while looking up airfares and tossing the father pumpkin candies for his kid.
Jiménez took a moment to reflect. "This is not fake news, quote unquote," he said, his voice starting to crack. "And that's the only political statement I'm gonna make, is that this is not fake news. This is real. These are real peoples' lives. These are not numbers. This is not a caravan. These are actual, real people that need our help."