PHOENIX (AP) - Overwhelmed border officials have started releasing migrants into Arizona’s rural Yuma County as more people arrive with hopes of making their home in America amid a pandemic that won’t allow authorities to hold as many in detention.
Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls says the U.S. Border Patrol on Feb. 15 released a group of 20 people into the neighboring community of San Luis and several more similarly sized groups were let out in subsequent days. The new releases worry local leaders who two years ago grappled with trying to manage the release of 5,700 migrants into the county of about 215,000 people over three months.
Immigration officials typically have released migrants into the U.S. after giving them their court date when they don’t have room for them in detention facilities.
Yuma does not have the resources to house, feed and provide other resources to a large influx of newly released migrants, Nicholls said. The migrants often do not speak English and need instructions on how to show up for court dates and other required appointments.
"There is no capacity in our current nonprofit system in Yuma," including shelters, said Nicholls. The only temporary shelter in the area closed last year.
The new wave of migrant releases in Yuma are separate from asylum seekers entering the U.S. on Friday at San Diego and next week in Texas as the Biden administration eliminates a Trump-era policy. Under the Migrant Protection Protocols policy, also known as Remain in Mexico, migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. were forced to wait in Mexico for immigration court hearings in the U.S.
Nicholls has spent much of the week on the phone with federal and state officials, as well as nonprofit social service agencies, to prepare for any additional arrivals.
"The problem is an uptick in apprehensions and insufficient capacity for staffing and detention," the mayor said. "I don’t think they should be releasing these migrants into small communities that aren’t set up to deal with them."
Customs and Border Protection said in a written statement that since April some of its holding facilities had reached capacity because of an increase in border apprehensions combined with social distancing guidelines that don’t allow for as many people to be held.
"Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing," the statement said.
Stanford Prescott, spokesman for the International Rescue Committee in Arizona, said the nonprofit is talking to federal officials about the need to transport migrants released in Yuma to larger cities like Phoenix, where it has a center with 150 socially distanced beds. He said another shelter in Tucson is also equipped to house migrants.
Concern about more people being released in Yuma has mushroomed in recent days, with Arizona politicians calling on federal officials to ensure their border communities are not harmed.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and other elected officials have worried about how large releases in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic could affect public health.
The State Department said it has health protocols in place, including COVID-19 tests, for migrants released under the Remain in Mexico program. But it is unclear if people outside the program who are now being released in Yuma are being tested for infection.
"This is a national issue, not a Yuma issue," Nicholls said. "There needs to be a national solution."