GAO examines US border practices in facing record numbers of migrants
The Washington Post October 17, 2022
Migrant families who were released along the border last year with instructions to show up later at U.S. immigration offices generally complied with those directives, but most of the addresses initially gathered by the government were wrong or incomplete, an oversight report to Congress said Monday.
The findings by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan congressional agency that is the government's primary oversight body, examined some of the ad hoc practices deployed by the Biden administration to contend with record numbers of border-crossers in U.S. custody.
When the number of migrants entering the country illegally soared in the months after Biden took office in 2021, U.S. Border Patrol stations were quickly overwhelmed and detention facilities became crowded beyond their pandemic-rated capacity. The administration responded by issuing some family groups a "Notice to Report" directing them to go to an office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at their destination city within 60 days.
The process reduced paperwork for U.S. agents along the border, but it essentially amounted to an honor system for migrants asking them to initiate their own potential deportations.
U.S. authorities recorded 1.7 million detentions along the Mexico border during the 2021 fiscal year, and this year's figure is projected to exceed 2.3 million, the highest ever.
In 2021, about 450,000 migrants arrived as part of a family group, and that figure rose to approximately 550,000 during the 2022 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
The GAO found the Border Patrol issued nearly 94,000 Notice to Report documents to migrant family members between March 2021 and Sept. 2021, primarily in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. For the first three months of the new process, about 60 percent of the address info gathered by U.S. agents was often incomplete or invalid, the report said.
"For example, officials stated that Border Patrol sometimes recorded the onward destination state but not a street or city," it said. "These officials also stated that the addresses were sometimes associated with an apartment building, but the apartment number was not included. Or, they stated agents may have misspelled the address in the data system or listed an (ICE) field office as the family unit's destination."
Border Patrol officials also failed to coordinate the program with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose offices in U.S. cities were unprepared to receive hundreds of migrants per day lacking court appointments, the report said.
Adding to the confusion, migrants were provided with lists of ICE field offices but not instructed to go to specific locations, so immigration officials at those locations had little idea how many people to expect, the GAO found.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), who asked the GAO to evaluate the Biden administration's Notice to Report process, said the findings reflected a "hurried process to get people into the country faster."
"The administration has created a new process at the border and it's important to understand how it's working," Lankford said, in an interview. "Basically they had a backlog at the border and they just moved it into the interior of the country."
The lack of coordination between CBP and ICE during the initial phases of the Notice to Report process in 2021 generated "significant challenges," the GAO found, as hundreds of migrants began showing up daily on a walk-in basis at ICE field offices. ICE administrative staff couldn't handle the workload, and crowds of parents with children were left waiting in long lines in the streets outside agency offices, including one with "a waiting room that can accommodate only six people."
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the GAO report.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded to criticism of the Notice to Report process by significantly improving the accuracy of the address collection process after June 2021, the GAO said. CBP phased out that process in favor of a different procedure known as Parole with Alternatives to Detention that allowed the government to keep better track of released migrants using electronic monitoring apps and other technology.
Migrants released from custody after entering the United States illegally are typically issued a charging document known as a "Notice to Appear," which initiates the deportation process. Completing the paperwork for those forms typically takes border agents 2 to 2.5 hours, but the new fast-track procedures launched under Biden only take about 30 minutes, the GAO found.
Families have generally complied with the government's instructions, according to GAO. About three-quarters of the roughly 180,000 migrant family members released into the United States under the new programs between March 2021 and February 2022 have reported to ICE offices. In about half of those cases, ICE has initiated deportation proceedings, which generally allows families to remain in the United States while seeking asylum or some other legal residency status through immigration courts, the report said.
To track down the roughly 45,000 migrant family members who failed to show up at ICE offices as directed, the agency has sent notices via mail and attempted to contact individuals by phone, the report said. Migrants who do not respond are referred to ICE fugitive operations for possible arrests. ICE officials told the GAO they are concerned about their growing workload because CBP has released about 100,000 additional migrants using Parole with Alternatives to Detention since the spring.
Migrants who arrive as part of a family group and state a fear of persecution if returned to their home countries are generally released into the United States and allowed to seek humanitarian protections under U.S. law. The backlog of unresolved asylum claims has ballooned in recent years, and the cases often take years to resolve, creating what is widely acknowledged to be an incentive for migrants who may not have valid claims to avoid a quick deportation and detention.