The last week of March ended with immigration officials warning of a migration crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border and a Democratic congressman sharing data indicating more than 50,000 migrants were transported from federal border facilities to San Antonio over the last three months.
That news came in the shadow of another presidential threat to close large parts of the southern border if Mexico did not do more to curb the migrations toward the United States.
On Friday, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said during a press conference in San Antonio that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, reported it transported more than 50,000 immigrants to the Alamo City since December.
Cuellar said the data came from a meeting with his House appropriations subcommittee for homeland security on Thursday. He explained what might happen to migrants once ICE dropped them off at a bus station in San Antonio.
“There’s a couple things that could happen. Either it’s a Catholic Services charity or sort of non-profit. They’ll take them for a day, feed them, provide them some clothes, and then from there they go back to the bus station. And then [the migrants] make arrangements with these non-profits or with those family units and say, 'can you send me a bus ticket' and then from there they take off.”
He added that, overall, 117,000 migrants have been released in multiple cities over the last three months. Nearly half were released in San Antonio, and the remainder were released in several other cities, including El Paso, San Diego and Phoenix.
Earlier in the week, Antonio Fernandez, the CEO of Catholic Charities in San Antonio, appealed to the public for financial assistance and toys for migrant children. Cuellar comments echoed Fernandez's description of how migrants were cared for.
Fernandez explained that workers help migrants contact friends or family elsewhere in the country to find a permanent place to stay and help them find lodging and bus and airline tickets.
On Thursday in El Paso, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar said the Department of Homeland Security had turned the challenge of more migrants into chaos, particularly in her Far West Texas city.
Speaking on MSNBC, she called for the resignation of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
"We need DHS to come up with a humane way to process these families," she said. "They should not be under a bridge, they should not be out in the open, out in the elements. It shouldn't be up to the community to solve this problem. This is a DHS challenge."
Border Patrol officials in the El Paso sector reported agents took nearly 600 migrants into custody every day throughout March. To date this fiscal year, the Far West Texas sector had seen the greatest increase in family apprehensions of any other sector — up nearly 1700 percent compared to the same period last year.
Earlier in the week, Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also focused on the migrant situation in El Paso. He warned the surge of Central Americans illegally crossing the border had pushed the U.S. immigration system to its breaking point.
“The increase in family units is a direct response to the vulnerabilities in our legal framework," he said, "where migrants and smugglers know that they will be released and allowed to stay in the U.S. indefinitely pending immigration proceedings that could be many years out.”
CBP officials anticipated 55,000 families, including 40,000 children, entered the immigration process in March.
McAleenan reported that some U.S. border patrol highway checkpoints were recently closed and 750 agents were reassigned to help immigration officials with the rise in migrants, who were mostly from Honduras and Guatemala.
He called for immediate congressional action, on behalf of CBP agents and vulnerable migrants in U.S. custody, "and to reinstate integrity into our immigration system."
Homeland Security officials at a border security conference in San Antonio also expressed concern about the increasing flow of migrants.
Earlier in the week, NPR's John Burnett reported that CBP officials at the conference worried that warmer spring weather may bring up to 150,000 Central American migrants to the border — numbers not seen in two decades. Burnett added that some Border Patrol holding cells exceeded 300 percent overcapacity.
One official at the conference in San Antonio warned that if the situation did not improve, more migrants may die of illness.
McAleenan said he shared those health concerns. He said some of the migrants had the flu or chicken pox, or experienced seizures.
“We are doing everything can to simply avoid a tragedy in a CBP facility," he said, "but with these numbers, with the types of illnesses we’ve been seeing, I fear it’s just a matter of time.”
On Saturday, Andrew Meehan, CBP's assistant commissioner for public affairs, explained in a statement that the "Border Patrol stations were built in the ‘80s and ‘90s to process hundreds of single adult individuals from Mexico, not hundreds of thousands of family units and unaccompanied juveniles from the northern triangle. ... This crisis has forced CBP to seek every possible temporary solution to safely house, process, and care for those in custody."
Meehan added: "This crisis is so critical, that for the safety of USBP Agents and those in their custody, USBP has begun processing non-criminal family units for immediate release under an order of recognizance based upon the current capacity issues. Additionally, this humanitarian crisis has dramatically impacted the ability to carry out their primary law enforcement mission."
His statement on Saturday concluded: "DHS is committed to addressing this humanitarian need, but the current situation is unsustainable for Border Patrol operations. This status quo is not an option. The legal framework must be addressed. The only remedy to this crisis is Congressional action."
Sister Norma Pimentel, the director of the Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley chapter, said Friday the U.S. needs to look abroad for a solution to the problem and address why people are coming here in the first place.
“We need to go beyond the border and to the actual root cause and begin to address them," she said. "As leaders of every country, I think they must really look at solutions that work.”
Lauren Terrazas and Fernando Ortiz Jr. contributed to this report.