Border detention cells in Texas are so overcrowded that the US is using aircraft to move migrants
Central American migrants are seen inside an enclosure where they are being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), after crossing the border between Mexico and the United States illegally and turning themselves in to request asylum, in El Paso, Texas, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

“This is the worst I have ever seen it, by far,” said one veteran Border Patrol agent in South Texas.

Overcrowding at Border Patrol stations in South Texas has become so acute in recent days that U.S. authorities have taken the rare step of using aircraft to relocate migrants to other areas of the border simply to begin processing them, according to three Homeland Security officials.

The first flight left McAllen on Friday, transferring detainees to Border Patrol facilities in Del Rio. There are daily flights scheduled for the next several days, with two planned for Tuesday, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the operations.

The flights are conducted by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, but the detainees remain in the custody of the Border Patrol, officials said. Though ICE routinely uses aircraft to move detainees among its detention facilities, it is very unusual for the Border Patrol to fly recent arrivals from one part of the border to another to perform routine booking procedures.

Homeland Security officials requested the aircraft because the Border Patrol has an urgent need to move single adults out of the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. The agency is scrambling to make room for the large volume of families and children who have come across the border in dramatically higher numbers in the past several days, officials said.

One official said the U.S. government has resorted to using aircraft because all available buses were already in use and authorities needed every available transportation option.

“This is the worst I have ever seen it, by far,” said one veteran Border Patrol agent in South Texas who was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The number of people taken into custody along the Mexico border has exceeded 5,500 each day for several days in a row, and the Border Patrol currently has more than 17,500 people in holding cells and tent sites set up in parking lots outside stations, officials said. That is a 30% increase from late March, when authorities said border agents and infrastructure had hit the “breaking point.”

Tents have been set up in the parking lots outside Border Patrol stations in the lower Rio Grande Valley cities of McAllen, Brownsville and Rio Grande City to ease overcrowding. Emergency tents for families also have been erected in El Paso and at Camp Donna, a military site in the Rio Grande Valley.

To alleviate overcrowding in holding cells, the Border Patrol in recent weeks has begun releasing migrants directly from its custody, instead of waiting for ICE to pick them up and either detain or release them.

But the sheer volume of people coming across the border in the past several days has swamped the agency’s ability to process families and children, so holding cells are filling with single adults because they are a lesser priority.

The Border Patrol will use the flights to transfer some of those adults to Del Rio, where facilities are less overcrowded, instead of having to conduct releases, officials said. Each flight costs $16,000 and can transport approximately 135 adults.