By Omar Younis
SAN BERNARDINO (Reuters) – A surge in migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has pushed immigration detention facilities in California to capacity, forcing U.S. Border Patrol to release many at bus stations in the state for the first time, the agency said on Monday.
U.S. Border Patrol in the El Centro area of southern California said it began to drop migrants off at San Bernardino’s Greyhound Station on Wednesday after it ran out of room to hold them.
“It was a decision that was made because they couldn’t take any more families and obviously we cannot keep them in custody for much longer because we are at capacity,” said Miguel Garcia, acting assistant chief patrol agent.
Apprehensions of migrant families in California’s El Centro sector rose 383 percent in the seven months through April from a year earlier as record numbers of mainly Central Americans crossed the border, Border Patrol data shows.
In San Bernardino, long a transit hub for east-west travel and freight, immigrants were dropped off at the bus terminal by Customs and Border Patrol Agents to wait for family, friends or volunteers to pick them up.
“We asked them where they were going to drop us off and they said at a bus station and there you might find some people who can help you, and that’s it,” said Angel Gonzalez, 34, who left Guatemala on April 25 with his 11-year-old son and traveled through Mexico before crossing the U.S. border.
Gonzalez and his son were held by Customs and Border Patrol for six nights before they were released at the bus station on Sunday, seeking a ride to join relatives in Arkansas.
Immigration authorities for years have dropped off migrants at bus stations in the Southwest, after releasing them pending court hearings to decide whether they can stay in the country. From there, they travel to their intended destination in the United States.
Record numbers of families from Central America are traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border and asking for asylum in the United States, fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries. From October 2018 through this April, nearly 293,000 unaccompanied children or people traveling in families were apprehended at the southern U.S. border – nearly four times the number during the same period the prior year.
The influx of families has swamped U.S. Border Patrol stations built to house single adults, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has run out of space to hold them.
Jacinto Chilel traveled through Mexico by bus with his 15-year-old daughter, Nineth, leaving his wife and five other children back in Guatemala in hopes he could send money home when he reaches Tennessee, where relatives live.
“There was a lot of risk on the route (from Guatemala), especially going through Mexico. But once we got into the United States we felt better about our safety,” said Chilel, 46.
(Reporting by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Michael Perry)