As President Donald Trump prepares to visit Arizona for a pre-election rally, federal immigration authorities have not-so-quietly released hundreds of undocumented families arriving at the state’s Southern border seeking asylum in the United States.
The families have been dropped off at churches and other shelters by the busloads.
The abrupt release of large numbers of migrant families has been welcomed by immigrant rights groups, who prefer allowing them to enter the U.S. to apply for asylum over prolonged detention, especially in the wake of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy last summer, which resulted in the forced separation of nearly 3,000 children from their parents.
But some advocates are concerned that the large-scale release of families has been timed by the Trump administration to fire up the Republican base leading up to the midterm elections in hopes of tipping the scales in favor of Republican candidates such as Rep. Martha McSally, a border hawk who is running neck and neck with her centrist Democratic opponent, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.
ICE officials announced last Monday that the agency had begun releasing families in Arizona without fully reviewing their travel plans in response to a surge of families arriving at the border and a lack of detention space.
The adults in the family are outfitted with an ankle monitor, released into the custody of relatives living in the United States, and given a hearing at immigration court several weeks later.
The agency claimed they had no choice to release the families because the agency was being hamstrung by a court agreement known as the Flores settlement which limits the amount of time children can be held in detention centers.
A ‘manufactured crisis’ at the border?
Five days after ICE’s announcement, on Saturday, Trump’s campaign announced that Trump would be making a stop in Arizona as part of a flurry of rallies leading up to the midterm elections intended to help Republicans maintain control of both houses of Congress.
“I think they are doing it because it’s a month before the election and they want to control a narrative about a crisis along the border that doesn’t exist,” said the Rev. Ken Heintzelman, pastor at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ.
The north Phoenix church provided housing to 109 parents and children who were released by ICE last week, all of them from Guatemala, Heintzelman said.
As of Monday, all but nine had left the church, boarded Greyhound buses and continued on their way to reunite with families, mostly on the eastern and southeastern part of the country, Heintzelman said.
Republican Martha McSally and her rival, Democrat Sinema, debate immigration Oct. 15, 2018, during a debate for U.S. Senate.
The nine who remained on Monday had been delayed by Hurricane Michael, which forced Greyhound to cancel bus routes last week to cities in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and other states.
Shadow Rock is one of more than a half dozen churches in the Phoenix area that provided temporary shelter to about 300 families released by ICE in the Phoenix area.
ICE has refused to provide statistics on the number of family members the agency has released since the mass releases began over the weekend of Oct. 6-7.
But according to leaders with non-profit groups that worked with ICE to find shelters, the agency released at least 800 family members in Arizona over a period of about five days through Wednesday of last week, including about 300 to churches in the Phoenix area, at least 300 in the Tucson area and at least 200 in the Yuma area.
Heintzelman emphasized that “we are overjoyed at the release of these families and the reunification of these families because their children are not being held in jail.”
But he accused ICE of unnecessarily holding families for longer periods of time and then releasing them in large numbers to create a “manufactured crisis” at the border.
ICE blames ‘inaction by Congress’
Other migrant advocates in southern Arizona reported that many of the migrant families they received last week at their shelters had been in detention for longer periods of time than is usual.
“So, on the normal, everyday-operation basis, we receive families that were in detention for one night, maybe two nights,” said Gretchen Lopez, the coordinator for The Inn Project, one of two permanent centers in Tucson.
“But right now, we’re receiving people that, maybe even, were in detention for up to 10 days,” Lopez told The Arizona Republic last week, amid the release of large numbers of families there.
“We think that ICE could be releasing numbers more consistently instead of holding people in detention centers and then releasing them en masse,” Heintzelman said.
Heintzelman said the Trump administration is trying to send the message that “we are being invaded by all these unwanted despicable people, and I am the only one who takes this seriously and has been able to empower ICE and the Border Patrol and look at me protecting the country and I need McSally to help me do it otherwise the Democrats are going to open up the borders and the next thing you know your houses are going to be broken into and your families are going to be in trouble and your jobs are going to be gone.”
Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman, declined to comment on allegations that the agency’s large-scale release of families was tied to the midterm elections.
She referred to a written statement the agency released last week that said “after decades of inaction by Congress, the government remains severely constrained in its ability to detain and promptly remove families that have no legal basis to remain in the United States. As a result, family units continue to cross the border at high volumes and are likely to continue to do so, as they face no consequence for their actions.”
On Oct. 7, ICE began releasing families without fully reviewing their travel plans due to “the incredibly high volume of (family members) presenting themselves along the Arizona border,” the statement said.
The families were being released to avoid the risk of violating the Flores settlement, the statement said, which limits the amount of time migrant children can be held in detention centers.
Ariz. sees increase in migrant families
But some migrant advocates said that statement does not accurately reflect the situation in Arizona.
Since 2014, following the outcry after ICE began dropping off migrant families at bus stations to fend for themselves, non-profit groups stepped in to help.
Those groups, and not ICE, have been the ones that have been assisting newly released families in Arizona with their travel plans, according to Teresa Cavendish.
She’s with the Tucson-based Catholic Communities Services of Southern Arizona, which helped some 500 migrants last week in the southern part of the state.
“In this situation, it has not been necessary for ICE to make any attempt at transportation arrangements,” she added. “But in Tucson, they don’t do that anyway, unless they are not sending (families) to a (migrant) shelter.”
Cavendish said she hasn’t noticed any other changes in their working relationship with ICE since their announcement, other than the larger the usual number of families released last week.
Border Patrol statistics show that Arizona has experienced a significant increase in the number of migrant families arriving at the southern border.
Apprehensions of family members in the Tucson and Yuma sectors combined spiked 122 percent to 16,227 through August, compared to 7,336 during the same period the year before, according to the statistics.
Leah Sarat said she doesn’t doubt that ICE has received a surge of migrant families apprehended by Border Patrol. But she also questioned the timing of the large-scale release of families by ICE so close to the midterm elections.
“I am concerned that this is happening right before the election,” said Sarat, an associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University and a volunteer coordinator for the Phoenix Restoration Project. The advocacy group has been working with ICE to help find churches in the Phoenix area to provide temporary shelter to released families.
ICE publicizing large family releases
Sarat said ICE for years has been releasing smaller numbers of families into the community while their asylum cases are pending after arriving at the border without documents to enter legally.
But in the past the agency has released families with little fanfare, typically by dropping them off at the Greyhound bus station, she said.
This time, in issuing a statement, ICE appeared to want to draw attention to the large-scale release of families, Sarat said.
In addition to influencing the midterm elections, Sarat said she is concerned the release was timed to fuel support for the Trump administration’s recent push to hold more parents and children in detention centers.
Following the collapse of this summer’s zero-tolerance policy amid intense criticism, the Trump administration has turned its attention toward pushing for changes in regulations aimed at terminating the decades-old Flores agreement limiting the amount of time migrant children who arrive at the border without documents can be detained.
The Trump administration has characterized the Flores agreement as a “loophole” and argues that releasing undocumented families encourages more Central American families to make the dangerous journey through Mexico, often with the help of smugglers, under the hope that once they reach the U.S. border they will be allowed to settle permanently in this country.
By detaining more children and families until they can be deported, the Trump administration seeks to deter thousands of undocumented families arriving at the border.
The majority of families arriving at the Southern border in recent years are from Central American countries and regions of Mexico plagued by high levels of poverty, gang and drug-cartel violence.
“My impression is that they have been more willing to be open about this through the media, and through sharing it with actors in the community who they know will talk, so they seem to be less quiet about it then they have in the past,” Sarat said. “And I am concerned about what that might mean for the current election cycle and calls for increases in family detention.”
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