As the Biden administration continues to grapple with high numbers of migrant families streaming across the southwestern border, efforts taken earlier this year to relieve overcrowding at border stations are resulting in the unintended release of thousands of undocumented migrants into the country, some of whom are off the radar of immigration enforcement officers.
The situation has fueled Republican attacks on the administration for what they have declared a crisis on the border, and Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, will have a chance to deliver a fresh defense on Tuesday as he testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
In March, Border Patrol agents in Texas cut in half the amount of time agents typically take to enter an undocumented migrant into the immigration court system. They did this by using a document not recognized by the courts that directs migrants to report to an immigration office within 60 days to be officially entered into the immigration court system.
Homeland security officials are now finding that many of the migrants who received this alternate document have missed the reporting window, leaving about 15,000 migrants — most of whom entered the country with family members — somewhere in the United States and largely under the radar of immigration enforcement officials, according to internal data shared with The New York Times.
Since March 19, when the new policy began, Border Patrol agents have issued these documents to about 50,000 migrants, the department said. That is compared to about 63,000 official charging documents the Border Patrol has issued between March and June, according to government data. Of the 50,000, the department said that as of July 16, 70 percent of the migrants have either checked in or are still within the 60-day window to do so. That leaves 15,000 migrants who have missed their 60-day window.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, has said that despite asking repeatedly about the number of mostly asylum-seeking immigrants who received this extrajudicial document from Border Patrol, the department had yet to provide details.
“The document an individual receives is dependent on facility space and resources available to process,” Marsha Espinosa, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement Monday night. She said even with the alternate document, agents continue to run background checks and collect fingerprints and other information. She said many of the migrants who received these documents have been reaching out to ICE and checking in.
Immigrant advocates and legal advisers have said they are telling the migrant families to follow the instructions and check in with ICE regardless of which document they were handed by Border Patrol.
Still overwhelmed, Border Patrol agents continue to issue about 800 of the documents a day, according to the data shared with The Times.
Most of the migrant families have been arriving in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. Last week, a spokeswoman for Good Neighbor Settlement House, a soup kitchen in Brownsville, said the organization helped 268 migrants in one day, up from an average of 45 to 55 a day in June. “We are definitely seeing an increase,” she said.
Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, said the surge in migrants crossing into the country through the Rio Grande Valley comes as more Border Patrol agents are testing positive for Covid-19. He said one of the main nonprofit organizations that has been helping to provide shelter and support for migrants after they are released from Border Patrol has stopped accepting more people as of Monday, as cases in the region are on the rise.
More than half of the traffic on the southern border between February and June has been in Texas, where families and children from Central America have been entering the country in high numbers, according to Border Patrol data.
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott, Republican of Texas, directed law enforcement officials to start arresting migrants for trespassing to address illegal immigration.
“Texas has begun arresting illegal immigrants who are trespassing in Texas or vandalizing property & fences,” Mr. Abbott said in a Twitter post on Wednesday. He said the migrants were being sent to a detention center in Dilley, “rather than being released like the Biden Admin. has been doing.”
If the administration continues to use the alternate document while border stations see high numbers of migrants crossing illegally into the country, the number of undocumented immigrants living under the radar will continue to increase, Joseph Edlow, an immigration attorney and former deputy director for policy at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Trump administration, said in an interview on Monday.
“To use this in the way that it’s being used is akin to ending immigration enforcement and making it clear that the onus is essentially on the individual to report themselves if they want to,” Mr. Edlow said of the alternate document. The migrants who have legitimate asylum claims, for example, are not benefiting from the policy, either, he said. “It’s almost like a legal purgatory, where there is really nothing going on because they’re not legally here,” he said.
Miriam Jordan contributed reporting from Los Angeles.