Presidio prepares as Border Patrol suggests an immigrant “catch & release” policy

PRESIDIO – Border Patrol quietly informed Presidio public officials on August 8 that a proposed policy change could push the agency to release detained immigrants into the City of Presidio beginning in September. With nine days until September 1, city officials, the sheriff’s office and local organizations are scrambling to prepare.

Border Patrol, meanwhile, remains silent about any firm plans. Presidio officials are hoping to figure out options for shelter, housing, meals and medical care before immigrants are released into the streets by Border Patrol.

Many officials refer to this type of policy as “catch and release,” and Border Patrol has already implemented the policy at major ports of entry across Texas. Immigrants who come through Presidio are currently bussed out of the Big Bend region and into El Paso before being placed in detention or released elsewhere. Now that is expected to change.

Under this type of policy, undocumented immigrants who meet Border Patrol’s specific set of criteria are not deported or sent to a detention center. Rather, they are given an order to appear in court at a later date before being unceremoniously set free into the United States.

Since family separation policies have officially ended and family detention centers are scarce, it is family units who are primarily qualifying for “catch and release” today.

At a city council meeting in Presidio on August 14, City Administrator Joe Portillo informed council that Border Patrol is averaging 100 apprehensions a month in the Big Bend Sector and last month encountered a staggering 600 individuals. It’s unclear how many of those would now qualify for release, but the city fears an inundation.

Family unit apprehensions in the Big Bend sector are up 274% since last July, with 2,199 individuals arriving in a “family unit” so far this fiscal year.

On Twitter, President Donald Trump has claimed, “Catch and release is an obsolete term. It is now catch and detain,” but as ports are overwhelmed with processing and detention center cells overflow, “catch and release” has become a popular alternative to the high costs of housing and care for the tens of thousands of individuals apprehended on the border.

Some released immigrants contact family in the U.S. and coordinate travel to meet them. Others use their own money and resources to get by until their day in court.

“And then there’s some instances where people don’t have money to do anything,” said Portillo. In those instances, he says Border Patrol looks for nonprofits, churches or other organizations to get the released immigrants where they want to go.

In a written statement to The Sentinel this week, Border Patrol said in the event of “catch and release,” they’ll coordinate with local organizations, government and churches to “mitigate any local impact to the best of our ability.”

Unlike El Paso, where robust nonprofits and safety nets pick up the slack when hundreds of immigrants are released, the release of even a dozen immigrants in Presidio, its population estimated at 4,099, would impact the few resources the city has to offer.

Portillo has faith Border Patrol will come through with assistance. “I trust when they say they’re going to do their best,” he said. “They understand our limitations. They understand how unique and how rural the county is, and the City of Presidio is, and what kind of resources we have. And they know that it would tax us.”

Father Miguel Alcuino, the leader of Presidio’s Catholic church, told parishioners Sunday that the church will help where it can, but the responsibility needs to fall on the community of Presidio as a whole — not just the generosity of the church. Alcuino has corresponded with the city in hopes of sharing responsibilities. He emphasized that amenities at the Presidio Activity Center far outpace those of the church.

Border Patrol said they are still “exploring possible processing options” for the Big Bend Sector and called “catch and release” a “last resort,” referring to it by its official title of Notice to Appear and Order of Release on Recognizance (NTA/OR). However, after several local officials spoke to supervising agents about the real possibility of “catch and release”, Presidio has decided to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. 

To better forecast issues that might lie ahead, the city is referencing real scenarios the federal government has faced during the recent influx of immigrants. But the city is “really just thinking about what-ifs,” Portillo said.

The city administrator mused on the shortages of diapers and feminine products federal facilities faced, and questioned how many meals would need to be provided under the new policy. Then he turned to the growing number of immigrant deaths in federal custody, wondering aloud: “How do you deal with that?”

“We’re going to be very deliberate. It has to be well thought out. Our federal partners are telling us to have a little trust in them,” Portillo said, “and we do trust them.” He paused, then refocused on the potential ramifications. “It truly would take the breath out of the city.”

Meanwhile, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office received a firm end date to bussing from Border Patrol: August 31. Chief Deputy Joel Nuñez works closely with Border Patrol in south county but is concerned about the coming policy. Eventually, he believes, the area will be overwhelmed.

“They’ll be released right outside the doors of the Border Patrol station, which is in town,” Nuñez said. “It’s going to be a gradual increase of people roaming, trying to find assistance and shelter.” Nuñez hopes various stakeholders can meet to discuss the change and pool resources proactively before the new policy begins.

Sheriff Danny Dominguez said his office can’t afford to provide many resources, but he does think they will increase patrols in response. “Border Patrol says they do background checks and only release people without backgrounds, but when it comes to being hungry and needing shelter, to providing for themselves or their families, a desperate person might do things they don’t want to do, but have to do.”

With so many unknowns ahead, “We are being proactive with this short time, and trying to get a plan together,” Nuñez said. “We’re a small department in a large county, but, as always, we work with the community to get through these issues.”