WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is actively looking for additional space to house families caught crossing the border from Mexico illegally, primarily for mothers with young children, officials said.
Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made the statement Friday amid a surge of migrants seeking to enter the United States from Central America.
Mayorkas did not say how many people the new family detention centers will house or where they will be located. The government currently operates only one such facility, in Berks County, Pennsylvania, with space for fewer than 100 people.
Mayorkas said about 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended at the border since the start of the budget year in October. The administration has released an unspecified number of them into the U.S. in recent months with instructions to report later to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices. Mayorkas, the No. 2 official at the agency and former head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told reporters he did not know how many people have been released or subsequently appeared as ordered.
Mayorkas said the administration will also send more immigration judges, ICE attorneys and other immigration officials to the region to help process migrants caught crossing the border illegally and, when possible, quickly return them to their home countries.
Immigrants crossing the border illegally have overwhelmed U.S. immigration agencies. More than 174,000 people, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have been arrested in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley this year.
Other announcements the administration made about illegal immigration from Central America on Friday include:
The administration will give the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala $9.6 million to help local authorities reintegrate returned immigrants.
The U.S. Agency for International Development will launch a $40 million program to help improve citizen security in Guatemala. USAID will also start a $25 million crime and violence prevention program in El Salvador.
More than $18 million will be used to support community policing and law enforcement efforts to combat gangs in Honduras under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. The U.S. government will also provide $161.5 million for CARSI programs focused on security and government challenges in the region.
The spike in people crossing the border — southern Texas is now the busiest border crossing in the country — prompted the Homeland Security Department earlier this year to start sending families to other parts of Texas and Arizona for processing before releasing them at local bus stops.
Family detention has long been a contentious issue for Homeland Security.
In 2009 the department was forced to shutter a large family detention center in Texas after legal challenges about the conditions of the facility. And in 2012, ICE abandoned plans to accept bids for a new family detention center in Texas amid complaints from advocates about the possibility of housing immigrant families in jails.
The Department of Homeland Security said Friday that the first new family detention center will be a 700-bed facility on the grounds of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico. U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce told the Roswell Daily Record that the new detention facility planned for New Mexico will only be for immigrant families, not unaccompanied minors.
The Artesia training center is home to the Border Patrol’s training academy, which includes dormitories. Pearce said he believes the facility in Artesia could be a temporary stop before deportation.
Federal officials so far have not said when the facility will open, but they indicated that it will be relatively soon.
According to Pearce, border patrol stations continue to be overwhelmed by the number of immigrants.
“There has been a flood of people at the border, and they are holding them at the border in border patrol stations,” Pearce said. “But they aren’t able to get any work done, so the government is looking for places to put them.”
On Saturday, a Border Patrol official in San Diego announced that the agency is considering flying 140 immigrants to his area as early as Tuesday.
Sector chief Paul Beeson said they’ll be turned over to immigration officials, who will decide if they should be held or released while their cases are pending. The transfers will involve families and adults but no unescorted children, Beeson said.
On Friday, John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, urged President Barack Obama to send troops to the southern border to help deal with the surge of children and other migrants. More than 52,000 children traveling alone have been caught crossing the border illegally since October.
Former President George W. Bush deployed thousands of troops to the border during his second term to augment the Border Patrol as it bolstered its ranks. Since then, the agency has nearly doubled to more than 20,000 agents and the number of migrants caught crossing the border illegally has declined overall.