SAN DIEGO (AP) — President-elect Donald Trump will face an immigration system that is maxed out when he takes office in January as a high number of Central Americans and Haitians continue to come to the U.S. through the Mexican border.
Resources to process the immigrants, detain them and to try their immigration cases in court are extremely strained.
Now, federal officials say they are releasing Haitian immigrants who have been entering the country in large numbers, backtracking on a pledge to jail them before they are deported.
A U.S. government official told The Associated Press that the decision to free Haitians arriving in Arizona and California is in response to a lack of jail space. The official said releasing immigrants with orders to report later to immigration court is a tactic used when detention space is scarce, under certain humanitarian conditions or as part of efforts to keep families together.
Before the Haitians are released, they are subjected to a criminal background and national security check. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on speaking on condition of anonymity.
Federal immigration officials announced Thursday they are opening a large processing facility in west Texas next week in an effort to deal with the large number of families and young children coming through the border. The facility in Tornillo, outside of El Paso, can hold up to 500 people and will be up and running by next week, officials say.
The influx of migrants and lack of jail space on the border will be one of the most immediate immigration challenges for Trump.
Among the issues Trump will face is growing opposition to conditions at Border Patrol holding cells and ICE detention centers.
For example, the Border Patrol in Arizona faces a lawsuit from immigrants who say its holding cells are overcrowded, dirty and extremely cold. A federal judge in Tucson on Tuesday said he was inclined to direct the Border Patrol to improve sleeping conditions, although he hasn't issued a directive yet.
Immigrants who enter through Texas also report that Border Patrol holding facilities - known as "hieleras" - the Spanish word for "freezers," are difficult to sleep in. CBP has said it is "committed to the safety, security and welfare of those in our custody, especially those who are most vulnerable."
In California, thousands of Haitians have arrived at the U.S. border with Mexico in recent months, many after traveling 7,000 miles by foot, taxi and bus from Brazil through eight nations. They present themselves to U.S. border inspectors, often at San Diego's San Ysidro port of entry, the nation's busiest crossing.
About 5,000 Haitians had showed up at San Ysidro from October 2015 through late September, overwhelming border inspectors. Another 40,000 were on their way, officials have said.
The Department of Homeland Security last week said there were about 41,000 people in immigration detention facilities, compared to a typical population of 31,000 to 34,000.
It was unclear how many Haitians have been released since the change, although ICE says it has deported 203 Haitians to their home country and that about 4,400 remain detained.
ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said in a written statement it is removing Haitians in accordance with its enforcement priorities.
"ICE prioritizes the removal of national security threats, convicted felons, individuals convicted of significant or multiple misdemeanors, and individuals apprehended at or between ports of entry while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States," she wrote.
The decision to release Haitians will likely add to the growing backlog of more than half-a-million cases already pending in immigration court. That backlog has effectively meant that immigrants routinely wait years for a judge to decide if they should be kicked out of the country.
At a bus station in Phoenix on Thursday, several Central American women said authorities released them on condition that they promise to appear in immigration court. Yarely Cobon of Guatemala was wearing an ankle monitor and was with her 4-year-old daughter.
Cobon, 22, said she left Guatemala over three weeks ago and crossed the border in Texas. She turned herself in to the Border Patrol and was detained for about six days. Her family paid for a bus ticket to join them in Los Angeles, where she has a court hearing next week.
Cobon said the Border Patrol holding cell where she was held with her daughter was packed with women in children.
"I was just standing, sitting, desperate. There's children crying. It was dirty," Cobon said.
Ana Lidia Dubon Martinez is nearly eight months pregnant with twins and left Honduras with her 11-year-old brother almost a month ago. The pair swam across the river in Matamoros, Mexico, and turned themselves in to border agents in the U.S.
Dubon Martinez is headed to Los Angeles via bus.
The U.S. policy shift announced in September lifted special protections that Haitians got after their country's 2010 earthquake and treats them like immigrants from other countries and regions, including Mexico and Central America. Central Americans, particularly adult men, are often detained until they can be flown home. Mexicans are typically turned around immediately, made possible by their country's shared border with the U.S.
Women with children such as Cobon and Dubon Martinez are often released and given a court date similar to how the government is handling the Haitians.
The new posture hit hurdles when a powerful hurricane struck Haiti, raising more questions about the ability of the Caribbean nation to accept large numbers of its people. The U.S. temporarily suspended deportation flights to Haiti on Oct. 4 but Johnson vowed that Haitians would continue to be detained.
Spagat reported from San Diego, Caldwell reported from Washington, Galvan reported from Phoenix