Officials at U.S. Border Patrol stations are struggling to process a record number of asylum-seeking Central American families.
Now, instead of transferring the families to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the border agents are releasing people at shelters and Greyhound bus stations in the Coachella Valley and Inland Empire in California.
An infusion of more than $500,000 in California state funds is making it easier for a Catholic ministry to house some migrant families in Coachella. But the shelter sometimes reaches capacity and the Indio bus station has been selling out of tickets, forcing Border Patrol agents to transport the migrants farther from the border.
“The whole system is under severe pressure,” said David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector.
And as one institution tries to relieve that stress, it cascades on to another.
The situation is having ripple effects across the Coachella Valley and leading to a series of unintended consequences: Border agents are now dropping off migrant families at the Greyhound station in San Bernardino, Border Patrol officials have floated the idea of temporarily disabling its Salton Sea checkpoints and religious leaders are discussing housing migrants at Catholic schools in the Coachella Valley this summer.
Border agents 'severely challenged'
The bottle-necking is beginning at the border, where Border Patrol agents are “very overwhelmed” by the number of Central American families seeking asylum, said David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the El Centro sector.
As of April, the number of migrant families apprehended within the El Centro sector, in the Imperial Valley, has increased nearly 400% from the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.
“Our capacity to hold those that we’re processing is severely challenged right now,” Kim said. He declined to say exactly how many people the sector can hold at its stations, but said it’s taking agents up to 78 hours to process individual families and release them with a court date.
Agents at the sector’s field office in Indio typically focus on cases related to checkpoints near the Salton Sea, Kim said, but they are now helping to process migrant families, too. If the number of families seeking asylum continues to swell, he said, sector officials might temporarily shut down a checkpoint to free up more agents.
Migrant families are also overwhelming processing facilities operated by the Yuma sector of the Border Patrol, which covers western Arizona. The sector has enough capacity for about 400 people across three stations, including one in Blythe, but agents have been apprehending about 400 people per day, according to sector spokesman Jose Garibay.
Citing these capacity issues, Yuma sector officials have been releasing families since late March, instead of turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Agents from the Blythe station have been dropping off families at a Greyhound bus stop in the city, located just west of the California-Arizona border.
Shelter prepares 'for the long haul'
Many of the asylum-seeking families released from Border Patrol custody end up at Our Lady of Soledad in Coachella. Agents from the El Centro sector typically transport migrants directly to the church. Yuma sector agents drop them off at the Greyhound stop in Blythe, where Riverside County staff members meet the families and drive them to the church.
But the shelter at Our Lady of Soledad has also been reaching capacity, sometimes housing up to 175 people each night, according to the Rev. Guy Wilson, pastor of the Catholic church. And until recently, he said, its funds were stretched thin.
“We maybe could’ve gone on another month or month and a half with our own personal resources,” Wilson said.
Since October, Our Lady of Soledad and the Galilee Center in Mecca have housed more than 4,000 migrants, Diocese of San Bernardino spokesman John Andrews said. The diocese and Catholic Charities have spent about $65,000 on Greyhound bus tickets, so the families can reunite with relatives across the country; $13,000 on food; and $1,500 on prescription medications, Andrews said.
The diocese also contributed about $53,000 to the shelter efforts at the Galilee Center, he said. Galilee operates a shelter for migrant farmworkers, but it's had room for asylum-seeking families because the Coachella Valley grape harvest hasn’t yet hit full swing.
The state pitched in earlier this month, allocating $521,000 to Catholic Charities of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties to support the relief efforts at the Valley Missionary Program Retreat Center, run through the diocese at Our Lady of Soledad. The funding comes through the state’s new Rapid Response Reserve Program, which designates money to entities providing humanitarian assistance to immigrants when federal funding is unavailable.
With the state’s support, the Valley Missionary Program will hire one person to oversee the ministry, while Catholic Charities will hire a part-time employee to help migrants purchase bus tickets, Andrews of the diocese said. The money will also cover the costs of transportation, food and medicine, he said.
The investment, Wilson said, “allows us to continue this over the long haul.”
What the state can’t easily provide, however, is extra space to house the ever-growing migrant population. So, Wilson said, the ministry is considering housing families in Catholic schools this summer, while classes are out of session.
'Stranded' at the Greyhound
When the shelter at the Coachella church is full, El Centro sector agents release migrants at local bus stations. They mainly drop people off at the Greyhound station in Indio; they have also begun leaving people at the San Bernardino station.
“We are using Indio mainly because it’s a full-service hub,” Kim said. “We don’t want to drop people off at a place where they don’t have the ability to buy a ticket.”
Jarvis Bailey, operations manager for the Greyhound station in Indio, said he sometimes calls staff at Catholic Charities or the Galilee Center to alert them of the families' arrival at the station. Galilee Center staff members then pick up families at the Indio station and bring them back to their Mecca facility, said Galilee president and co-founder Gloria Gomez.
Over two days this week, Galilee staff picked up about 60 people from the bus station, Gomez said.
“We could not leave the babies and the moms stranded at the Greyhound,” she said.
Recently, some of bus lines heading from Indio to Phoenix and further east have been selling out, said Bailey of Greyhound.
"There's definitely been a surge in ridership," Bailey said. He attributed the increase, in part, to schools letting out for the summer, but said the Border Patrol's releasing of migrant families at the station has "for sure" contributed to the increase as well.
Due to the ticket shortage in Indio, agents from the El Centro sector are now dropping migrants off at the Greyhound station in San Bernardino, too, Agent Kim said.
Asked if he expected agents to continue dropping migrants off at the bus station in San Bernardino, Kim said: "Yes, it will definitely continue, at least for the foreseeable future."
Sector officials are looking into the possibility of dropping people off at the Palm Springs bus station, he said.
Rebecca Plevin reports on immigration for The Desert Sun. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @rebeccaplevin.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Record number of migrants puts 'severe pressure' on Border Patrol facilities, local shelters