Migrant crisis spreads from border into Inland Empire
It’s happening often enough now that there’s a new routine in San Bernardino when it comes to dealing with Central American asylum seekers dropped into the community by federal agents.
First, two or three vans painted in the familiar colors of the U.S. Border Patrol, white with green striping, pull into the parking lot of a Greyhound Bus station, where they drop off at least 20 or more migrants. Next, immigrant rights advocates arrive and escort those migrants to a local Catholic Church, where they got a hot shower, some food and a bed for a night or two. Finally, after travel arrangements are settled, the migrants are again on the move, riding or flying to families throughout the United States.
In the past two weeks, more than 400 people, most from Guatemala, have passed through the city of San Bernardino in this fashion. Most have said they came to the U.S. border on their own, not with caravans, according to advocates. Many speak indigenous dialects as well as Spanish. Most are men traveling with children.
RELATED: As border detention fills up, asylum seekers are being dropped off in the Inland Empire
Though it spiked recently there, this transit pattern isn’t limited to San Bernardino. Since fall, in neighboring Riverside County, advocates say more than 4,000 migrants have been dropped off by border agents, helped by local volunteers, and sent on to meet families around the country.
This under-the-radar flow of humanity – which has been acknowledged by federal officials – is straining the resources of advocates throughout the Inland Empire. Many volunteers, including some working virtually round the clock, question how long help can be extended to the new arrivals.
“It seems this may go on for a long, arduous endeavor and we don’t have the capacity to take care of these folks but for a few weeks or a month,” said Fernando Romero, executive director of the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center.
“But, then, we may have a human crisis in San Bernardino.”
The sudden drop-offs in San Bernardino, which caught advocates there by surprise, has led to considerable speculation as to why Border Patrol is transferring the travelers to their community.
Some believe it’s related to the Trump’s administration public threat to release immigrants into so-called sanctuary cities. Others said the administration is trying to build a case that they are at capacity because it is seeking more funds from Congress.
But San Bernardino might be a landing spot for more practical reasons.
The community has numerous organizations to help immigrants. And the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino includes Riverside County, where the church already is heavily involved in helping migrants being dropped off there.
“Border Patrol assumed the Diocese, or Catholic Charities, would provide some help in San Bernardino,” said Emilio Amaya, executive director of the San Bernardino Community Services Center.
Usually, people apprehended by the Border Patrol are turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. But in October, facing an unprecedented number of asylum seekers at the U.S. border, the Border Patrol began dropping off migrants in places like Blythe and Coachella.
Now, in Coachella, the places that can offer shelter are at capacity. Meanwhile, the Greyhound station in Indio, where many migrants hoped to catch a bus to get to their families didn’t have enough capacity to transport so many people. After that, Amaya said, agents started taking people further north, to San Bernardino.
“It’s a capacity issue more than a political issue,” he said.
Immigration authorities say their facilities at the border are simply full, as record-number of Central American migrants are making their way to the United States to escape poverty and violence. Nearly 461,000 people were apprehended at the Mexican border during the first four months of the year. Including those who were immediately refused entry – about 71,000 people – the four-month number surpasses the total for the last fiscal year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has reported.
Most of the people apprehended, 64%, are families. And because border facilities aren’t built to house youth or adults with children, the flood of young arrivals is straining resources and creating unsafe conditions, authorities say.
There also are federal laws that limit how long the Border Patrol can detain migrant children in custody.
“For the first time in Border Patrol history, nearly half of the adults we apprehended in April brought children,” said Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, on May 8, during testimony before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on border security.
The migrants, she believes, “received the message loud and clear: ‘Bring a child. You will be released.’” The result, she added, “is a humanitarian and a border security crisis.”
Provost said the flood of families also creates a security problem.
The focus on processing families leaves federal agents with less capacity to watch out for potential criminal single adults. Over the past fiscal year, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 3,500 people who, Provost said, had gang affiliations and criminal histories. She added that assaults on border agents were up 20 percent.
“We need to know who and what is crossing our border,” Provost testified. “But that is nearly impossible when our manpower is diverted.”
All the migrants dropped off in San Bernardino have come after being processed at the Border Patrol’s El Centro Sector in the Imperial Valley, home to Border Patrol stations in El Centro, Calexico, Indio and Riverside, said Ralph DeSio, a spokesman for the San Diego office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. All people who are apprehended by Border Patrol agents at places other than official points of entry are considered to be breaking the law, even if they are asylum seekers who turn themselves in, DeSio noted.
But the border stations are temporary processing facilities not designed to hold people for long periods. DeSio said they are not equipped to house large numbers of people, especially children.
In the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s El Centro Sector, the migrants are released only after being processed and told to reappear in immigration court on a specific date. Because of the backlog in the courts, and the flood of new arrivals, those appearance dates typically one to three years in the future.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Sector is receiving three planes a week, each carrying up to 125 migrants, sent from the Border Patrol in Texas. Those migrants are not being released into the community but are transferred to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in San Diego for further processing or possible deportation, DeSio said.
“They’re catching 3,000 to 4,000 people across the whole southwest border a day,” DeSio said. “You could fill a stadium with these people in a few days.
“The enormity of this is flying over many people’s heads.”
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the DC-based Migration Policy Institute think tank, said the transfers by Border Patrol might be a sign that “our immigration enforcement system is breaking down at the border.”
The government also is sending some asylum seekers to Mexico to await the long process through the much-touted Migrant Protection Protocols program – also known as Remain in Mexico. The program is ongoing, pending court hearings, but it’s only being implemented in certain areas. And even in areas where the program is in place, Pierce noted, not every migrant is being sent back to Mexico.
In San Bernardino, in addition to the Catholic Diocese, dozens of community organizations are mobilizing volunteers and seeking donations to help the new, temporary arrivals.
But the volunteer effort can be difficult. Some volunteers show up to drive a family to the airport, or pitch in for a few hours to sift through donated clothes, backpacks and blankets. Others take longer shifts, sometimes through the night, to stay with the migrants who stay either in a local Catholic Church or a budget motel, which is their last stop before traveling to their American-based relatives.
The process, which appears orderly in many ways, sometimes includes some twists.
Some migrants, for example, have been stopped at Ontario International Airport by Transportation and Security Administration agents, who told the travelers that they lacked proper documentation to board a plane, advocates said. And in a bizarre incident on Wednesday, May 22, some advocates drove after two Border Patrol vans because they feared the agents might drop off migrants far away.
CBP vans passed through the Greyhound station a few moments ago—blatantly disregarding our team and instead taking us on a chase through San Bernardino. This is what we’re facing folks. @IC4IJ @CCAEJ @ICUCPICO @CIYJA pic.twitter.com/E0AUyJ30nO
— Anthony Victoria (@eyeofthebarrio) May 23, 2019
“We wanted to make sure the people inside the vans were safe,” said Anthony Victoria, a spokesman for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, based in Jurupa Valley.
But Amaya said that the Border Patrol agents thought the advocates were anti-immigration protesters, and they drove away from the trailing cars simply because they wanted to avoid any potential conflict.
“There’s already been online talk from… groups talking about ‘doing something’ soon,” Amaya said.
Advocates are meeting with local and state officials, and calling various foundations, looking for funding to help get the migrants to their relatives across the United States.
To address the drop-offs in Riverside County, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently transferred $521,000 from a state Rapid Response Reserve Fund to Catholic Charities of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. (Last month, Newsom traveled to El Salvador to discuss the issues that are driving people to flee to the U.S.)
“Unless the city and the county step forward, we don’t have the capacity to continue (to help people) indefinitely,” Amaya said.
“The only reason we responded is because we had no choice. But this is not sustainable.”