Undocumented migrants wait to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States on May 15 in McAllen, Texas. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)
SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Border Patrol said Friday that it would fly hundreds of migrant families from south Texas to San Diego for processing and that it was considering flights to Detroit, Miami and Buffalo, New York.
The flights are the latest sign of how the Border Patrol is struggling to keep up with large numbers of Central American families that are reaching the U.S. border with Mexico, especially in Texas. Moving migrants to less crowded places is expected to distribute the workload more evenly.
Flights from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to San Diego were to begin Friday and continue indefinitely three times a week, with each flight carrying 120 to 135 people, said Douglas Harrison, the Border Patrol’s interim San Diego sector chief.
“We don’t have an end date,” Harrison told reporters. “This is a contingency operation. We’ve got to give the people in Rio Grande Valley some relief.”
Plans to fly from Rio Grande Valley to Detroit, Miami and Buffalo were preliminary, Harrison said. Authorities were researching available airports and the ability for nonprofit groups to provide temporary assistance.
Already, U.S. authorities are moving four buses a day from the Rio Grande Valley to Laredo, Texas, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. There is also a daily flight contracted through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Del Rio, Texas, about 275 miles away (440 kilometers) away.
Agents in the Rio Grande Valley will collect biographical information and do a medical screening before sending migrants to San Diego on flights contracted by ICE, Harrison said. Migrants will go from San Diego International Airport to a Border Patrol station, where they will be fingerprinted, interviewed and screened again for medical problems. Processing at the station typically takes hours.
ICE will decide whether to release or detain the families in San Diego. Its practice since October has been to quickly release families in the U.S. with notices to appear in immigration court.
The flights could further strain the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of religious and civic groups that has provided temporary shelter to asylum-seeking families since large-scale releases began in October. San Diego County has sued the Trump administration to recover costs.
The San Diego Rapid Response Network said it would shelter migrants who are flown from Texas, just as the organization has done for thousands of migrants released in California. It said the potential influx “underscores the urgent need for a permanent, long-term migrant shelter in San Diego.”
Short flights cost the federal government about $6,000 each, officials said. It wasn’t immediately clear how much longer flights cost.
Border Patrol agents do some processing remotely by videoconference, but Harrison said stations in the Rio Grande Valley had run out of room even to do that. San Diego, he said, had room to hold migrants for up to 72 hours and staff to process them, which stations on the northern border lack.
Border arrests have surged since the summer to 98,977 in April, nearly three times what they were a year earlier. Nearly seven of every 10 came as families or were children traveling alone. The Rio Grande Valley was by far the busiest corridor, followed by El Paso, Texas.
The Border Patrol says it is detaining about 8,000 people at a time in the Rio Grande Valley, double its maximum capacity even with a 500-person tent it opened earlier this month.
The agency said Friday it would open four new temporary structures in the Rio Grande Valley that will have generators, lighting, and air conditioning. It released photos showing people lying on grass or pavement outside two of its stations with Mylar sheets for blankets.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Houston contributed to this report.
Supreme Court halts Texas execution over Buddhist spiritual advisor
The Supreme Court has taken a new and stronger stand against religious discrimination with liberals and most conservatives agreeing to halt a Texas execution.
By a 7-2 vote, the court granted an emergency stay for Patrick Murphy and ruled prison authorities may not proceed “unless the state permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh noted that Texas would have allowed a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed Christian or Muslim religious advisor present in the execution room.
“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” Kavanaugh wrote. The state may choose to keep all clerics and religious advisors from entering the execution chamber, he said.
But Kavanaugh added, “What the state may not do, in my view, is allow Christian or Muslim inmates but not Buddhist inmates to have a religious advisor of their religion in the execution room.”
Thursday evening’s order in Murphy vs. Collier represents a partial reversal from the court’s handling of a similar case from Alabama in early February. Then, the court by a 5-4 vote refused to block the execution of a Muslim inmate who said his spiritual advisor was prevented from accompanying him to the execution.
Justice Elena Kagan called this “profoundly wrong” because it reflected government discrimination based on religion. Alabama authorities had argued that only state prison employees were allowed inside the small execution room. They also said the inmate had been waited too late to present his claim.
The Texas emergency appeal came as the court has been debating the role of religion in a case involving the prominent public display of a cross. In a Maryland case, the justices will decide whether the government has gone too far to favor the Christian religion. In her dissenting opinion, Kagan had argued the Constitution does not allow the government to favor one faith over another.
“Religious liberty won today. The Supreme Court made it clear that the 1st Amendment applies to every American, no matter their faith,” said Eric Rassbach, a senior counsel at Becket. “As we said in our brief to the court, you can’t give fewer rights to Buddhists than you give to Christians or Muslims. In his last moments, a condemned man can receive both comfort from a minister of his own faith, and equal treatment under the law.”
In the future, the state prison authorities have two options when carrying out an execution, Kavanaugh wrote. They may “allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room; or) allow inmates to have a religious adviser, including any state-employed chaplain, only in the viewing room, not the execution room. Things can go wrong and sometimes do go wrong in executions, as they can go wrong and sometimes do go wrong in medical procedures. States therefore have a strong interest in tightly controlling access to an execution room in order to ensure that the execution occurs without any complications, distractions, or disruptions.”
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