Officials at U.S. Border Patrol stations are struggling to process a record number of asylum-seeking Central American families. Now, instead of transferring the families to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the border agents are releasing people at shelters and Greyhound bus stations in the Coachella Valley and Inland Empire.
An infusion of more than $500,000 in state funds is making it easier for a Catholic ministry to house some migrant families in Coachella. But the shelter sometimes reaches capacity and the Indio bus station has been selling out of tickets, forcing Border Patrol agents to transport the migrants further from the border.
“The whole system is under severe pressure,” said David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector.
And as one institution tries to relieve that stress, it cascades on to another. The situation is having ripple effects across the Coachella Valley and leading to a series of unintended consequences: Border agents are now dropping off migrant families at the Greyhound station in San Bernardino, Border Patrol officials have floated the idea of temporarily disabling its Salton Sea checkpoints and religious leaders are discussing housing migrants at Catholic schools in the Coachella Valley this summer.
The bottle-necking is beginning at the border, where Border Patrol agents are “very overwhelmed” by the number of Central American families seeking asylum, said David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the El Centro sector.
As of April, the number of migrant families apprehended within the El Centro sector, in the Imperial Valley, has increased nearly 400% from the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.
Citing these capacity issues, Yuma sector officials have been releasing families since late March, instead of turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Agents from the Blythe station have been dropping off families at a Greyhound bus stop in the city, located just west of the California-Arizona border.
Many of the asylum-seeking families released from Border Patrol custody end up at Our Lady of Soledad in Coachella. Agents from the El Centro sector typically transport migrants directly to the church. Yuma sector agents drop them off at the Greyhound stop in Blythe, where Riverside County staff members meet the families and drive them to the church.
But the shelter at Our Lady of Soledad has also been reaching capacity, sometimes housing up to 175 people each night, according to the Rev. Guy Wilson, pastor of the Catholic church. And until recently, he said, its funds were stretched thin.
“We maybe could’ve gone on another month or month and a half with our own personal resources,” Wilson said.
Since October, Our Lady of Soledad and the Galilee Center in Mecca have housed more than 4,000 migrants, Diocese of San Bernardino spokesman John Andrews said. The diocese and Catholic Charities have spent about $65,000 on Greyhound bus tickets, so the families can reunite with relatives across the country; $13,000 on food; and $1,500 on prescription medications, Andrews said.
The diocese also contributed about $53,000 to the shelter efforts at the Galilee Center, he said. Galilee operates a shelter for migrant farmworkers, but it’s had room for asylum-seeking families because the Coachella Valley grape harvest hasn’t yet hit full swing.
The state of California pitched in earlier this month, allocating $521,000 to Catholic Charities of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties to support the relief efforts at the Valley Missionary Program Retreat Center, run through the diocese at Our Lady of Soledad. The funding comes through the state’s new Rapid Response Reserve Program, which designates money to entities providing humanitarian assistance to immigrants when federal funding is unavailable.
With the state’s support, the Valley Missionary Program will hire one person to oversee the ministry, while Catholic Charities will hire a part-time employee to help migrants purchase bus tickets, Andrews of the diocese said. The money will also cover the costs of transportation, food and medicine, he said.
The investment, Wilson said, “allows us to continue this over the long haul.”
What the state can’t easily provide, however, is extra space to house the ever-growing migrant population. So, Wilson said, the ministry is considering housing families in Catholic schools this summer, while classes are out of session.
Full story at The Desert Sun.