WASHINGTON — Border agents in the Rio Grande Valley, the epicenter of the current migrant surge, were authorized on Saturday to begin releasing adult migrants and families from custody before they have been given a date to appear in court, according to an internal document obtained by NBC News.
The move is “intended to mitigate operational challenges, including risks to national security, during significant surges of illegal migration as currently exist in the Rio Grande Valley” by reducing the time immigrants spend in custody, according to the document.
Some immigrants told NBC News they were being released without knowing how they will be contacted.
Releasing a migrant before determining a court date for an immigration hearing, which decides whether the migrant will be deported or allowed to stay in the U.S., is a divergence from Customs and Border Protection policy. CBP typically gives all migrants a “notice to appear” before they are released or sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for detention.
In the document, CBP instructed agents in the Rio Grande Valley that they are authorized to release migrants without court dates when their facilities meet one of a number of criteria, including reaching 100 percent capacity. According to data recently obtained by NBC News, as of Sunday, there were 5,175 immigrants in Border Patrol custody in the Rio Grande Valley, where facilities can hold 715.
On Monday morning, some immigrants who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity said they had in fact been released without a court date. They said that before they were released they were asked by U.S. border agents for contact information, which they provided, and given documents with a “to be determined” court date. They were told they would be contacted within 30 days.
Others told NBC News they were not asked for contact information and were simply given identification documents that they were told to show local law enforcement if they were stopped while in the U.S. It is not clear how the U.S. government will reach those people to see that they go before an immigration judge.
The document does not specify, and a CBP spokeswoman did not say, whether border agents were collecting contact information for all migrants or how they planned to reach immigrants who did not provide information.
The CBP spokeswoman said the border remains closed to families and single adults, but because Mexico does not have the capacity to take back all families, some are being processed in the U.S.
“In some cases, families are placed in removal proceedings further along in the release process rather than while they are at the Border Patrol station,” the spokeswoman said. “All families, however, are screened at the Border Patrol station, including the collection of biographical and biometric information and criminal and national security records checks.”
According to data obtained by NBC News, on Friday, Border Patrol apprehended 1,807 migrants who were traveling as part of a family, and only 179 of them were expelled back into Mexico.
Releasing adult migrants and families would create more room for children in Border Patrol custody. Unaccompanied migrant children are particularly affected by overcrowding, as they must remain in Border Patrol custody until they are transferred to the care of Health and Human Services. As of Sunday, more than 822 children had been in Border Patrol custody over 10 hours, places Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has called “no place for a child.”
Under no circumstances would unaccompanied migrant children be released from Border Patrol custody, the document said, as current law mandates that they be cared for and connected with a family member or another vetted sponsor by HHS.
Other criteria that allow agents to release single adult migrants and families from Border Patrol custody without a court date include when the Border Patrol facilities in that sector are at 75 percent capacity and the number of immigrants coming in exceeds the number of immigrants leaving for a 24-hour period. Also, agents may release migrants if the number of unaccompanied children in custody exceeds 50 percent of the stations’ capacity and those children are not able to be placed with HHS within 48 hours, the document said.
Agents are instructed not to release an immigrant if it is determined he or she poses a risk to national security or public safety, according to the document.
Anthony Terrell contributed.