LAREDO, Texas (AP) — The surge of immigrants into southernmost Texas has so overwhelmed the Border Patrol there that it's run out of room for detainees even in a neighboring sector.
Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley have made nearly 160,000 arrests in less than eight months, a more than 70 percent increase on last year. Last week, the agency shipped hundreds of those recent detainees to Laredo for processing. By the weekend, the overcrowding in that neighboring sector's stations had become serious, said Laredo Fire Chief Steve Landin, who sent a fire marshal to inspect one station.
"Every single one of the holding cells was over capacity," Landin said Friday. It became a safety issue and "it was uncomfortable for those people." Cells intended for 17 to 25 people held as many as 44, he said. Landin discussed the issue with the Border Patrol and by Tuesday, a follow-up inspection showed the overcrowding had been alleviated.
Berin Salas, a supervisory Border Patrol agent, said that after the fire marshal's visit the Rio Grande Valley sector stopped bringing additional immigrants to Laredo, he said.
Hector Garza, a Border Patrol union representative who made the complaint to the fire marshal and accompanied him on his inspection, said the sector was getting 400 transfers a day last week.
"The situation just got way worse," Garza said. Ventilation systems couldn't keep up in overcrowded holding cells so doors were left open. People sat on the floor in hallways; some were kept outside in an unloading area. Eventually, the agency began holding people in parked vans and buses, he said.
The Border Patrol is grappling with a dramatic shift in illegal border crossings from Arizona and California to South Texas that began three years ago.
The Rio Grande Valley sector has been making more than 1,000 arrests per day recently. The sector has temporarily brought in about 115 additional agents, turned to private charities and the Defense Department to help look after a wave of unaccompanied children, and bused and even flown hundreds of detainees to less busy sectors in West Texas and Arizona for processing.
Compounding the problem is that the majority of the immigrants are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, who require more processing time and can't just be taken back across the U.S.-Mexico border. Many are being released and told to appear in an immigration court once they arrive at their destination in the U.S.
It's unclear why the agency has struggled to reallocate the necessary resources to the Rio Grande Valley, which became the busiest sector on the border last year. So far this year it has more than double the number of arrests of any other sector.
Confusion mounted Friday when the Border Patrol commander overseeing South Texas operations abruptly canceled a news conference 10 minutes after it was scheduled to begin. Border Patrol spokeswoman Sara Melendez-De Los Santos told the assembled media that the event was canceled by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Officials in Washington later said it was canceled due to a lack of required coordination with headquarters.