Julia Edwards Ainsley, Reuters, June 6, 2017
Standing on the bluffs of Roma, Texas on a May afternoon two border patrol agents look out over the meandering Rio Grande River that separates Mexico from the United States and recall a time when the scene was far less tranquil.
Last fall, during the waning months of the Obama administration, hundreds of immigrants crossed the river on rafts at this point each day.
The reason for the change, the agents say, is a perception in Mexico and Central America that President Donald Trump has ended the practice known as “catch-and-release,” in which immigrants caught in the United States without proper documents were released to live free, often for years, as their cases ran through the court system.
Now, would-be border violators know “they’ll be detained and then turned right back around,” said one of the two agents, Marlene Castro. “It’s not worth it anymore,” she said.
Castro was simply echoing her boss, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who said on a visit to El Paso, Texas in April, “We have ended dangerous catch-and-release enforcement policies.”
But immigration attorneys, government statistics and even some officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which falls under Kelly, suggest that despite the DHS chief’s statement, there has been no clear change to the catch-and-release policy.
That’s in large part because there are legal constraints on who can be detained and for how long, due to a shortage of beds and a court ruling limiting the stay of women and children in custody to 21 days.
A separate court ruling limits detention time for immigrants whose countries refuse to repatriate them.
Daniel Bible, ICE field office director for Southern Texas, told Reuters he and his colleagues have not been issued new directions, and so continue to release illegal immigrants deemed to be low security risks, usually with notices to appear in court.
DHS spokeswoman Jenny Burke confirmed to Reuters that the agency has not issued new guidance for releasing migrants caught at the border.
ICE declined to provide data on the number of migrants being released into the United States. But other ICE data not previously published and reviewed by Reuters shows the pool of people not in custody and awaiting court appearances is growing.
Since Trump took office in late January, the number of immigrants awaiting court proceedings while living freely in the United States has grown by nearly 30,000, rising by an average of about 7,500 per month, according to the ICE data.
During the last seven months of President Barack Obama’s presidency, the rolls of those awaiting legal proceedings outside of custody grew more rapidly, at an average of about 20,600 people per month.