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Asylum-Seeking Detainees Could Soon Be Released In Presidio, Rather Than Transported To El Paso

By Sally Beauvais

Officials in the small border city of Presidio are preparing for the possibility of having to care for asylum-seekers in the near future.

That’s because authorities are considering releasing some detained migrants locally, instead of sending them 250 miles west to El Paso — which remains the official procedure at this time.

Presidio officials are still gathering information from the local Customs and Border Protection office about how many asylum-seekers could be released into the city under such a plan. At a recent city council meeting, City Administrator Joe Portillo theorized that the numbers could “quickly become overwhelming.”

Officials with CBP’s Big Bend Sector say they’re still exploring different processing options for migrants detained in the area, but could resort to releasing detainees.

In May of this year, the Presidio Station saw the sector’s largest ever increase in apprehensions, breaking daily, weekly, and monthly records. Numbers are down slightly since then, but agents arrested nearly 800 migrants in the sector last month.

Local immigration authorities declined to provide more specific information about their criteria for who they would release from custody in Presidio under such a plan. But in a statement released in March of this year, a CBP spokesperson announced Border Patrol stations across the country would begin releasing “non-criminal family units” immediately upon processing — with a notice to appear in immigration court on a future date — because of safety and capacity issues at overcrowded government detention facilities.

It’s unclear what’s driving the potential change in CBP protocols in Presidio, however. 

During a recent city council meeting, Portillo explained that up until this point in Presidio, “DHS has put [asylum-seekers] on a bus and they drive them to El Paso. And they’re released from there.” 

Portillo added that the local Border Patrol’s plan for how that process might change is in transition, but that he believed the decision was made at the federal level. 

“The Rio Grande Valley already releases them into their general public, the Laredo sector releases them into their public, El Paso does,” Portillo said. “There’s only a handful of ports that have enjoyed what we do, which is [to] send them somewhere else.”

Presidio Mayor John Ferguson urged council members to keep in mind that most migrants would likely only remain in town for a short period of time while making travel plans to reach sponsors in other cities.

“When we talk about people coming into our community, I think we need to remember that most of them — Presidio’s probably not their final destination,” Ferguson said. 

All Aboard America operates a bus between Presidio and Midland twice a day.

Still, Ferguson said Presidio needs to be as proactive as possible in anticipating the needs of asylum-seekers who may end up in their care.

“And that includes what we can do as a city, what we can do in concert with the church, reaching out to the Red Cross, the County,” he said. “I think that we need to have that stance that we’re going to do what we can, and show some compassion.” 

Other council members echoed Ferguson’s sentiment, and stressed the need to get a plan in place immediately in order to avoid being caught off guard if asylum seekers begin to show up in larger numbers in Presidio.

According to Portillo, migrants who wait in line in the neighboring Mexican city of Ojinaga to file their asylum claims legally at the local port of entry — rather than cross into the U.S. illegally — are already being released in Presidio.  But a Trump administration policy referred to as ‘metering’ severely limits the number of people who are allowed to approach the port to make such a claim each day.

If current apprehension trends in the Big Bend Sector hold steady, this potential change in local policy could cause a more significant increase.

Portillo urged council members to consider what kind of liability the city would take on should they opt to provide any kind of services in an official capacity.

“If someone falls ill under our care and we can’t give them the proper attention they need, it doesn’t matter, it still falls on us,” Portillo said.

He expressed concern about Presidio’s already-stressed infrastructure, but said he has faith in local border authorities to take the necessary steps to protect the community’s resources. 

In an email, a spokesperson for CBP’s Big Bend Sector stated that releasing migrants in Presidio would be done only as a last resort, after pursuing all other options — including the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols, or, “Remain in Mexico” program, which is currently only in place in major border cities. 

Portillo said, however, he was informed that detained asylum-seekers could be released into the small city from the local port of entry as early as the end of this month.

Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.