EXCLUSIVE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations have been turned into an "unofficial travel coordination agency," and agents are made to coordinate travel for some illegal immigrants with criminal records, an ICE source told Fox News on Wednesday.
The ICE official was reacting to Fox News’ reporting that single adult illegal immigrants are being quickly processed and released into the U.S. in large numbers via a hub in Brownsville, Texas.
Fox News footage showed several federally contracted buses dropping off dozens of mostly male migrants at a parking garage in Brownsville, Texas. Black tarps were set up with a makeshift sign that said "Border Patrol drop-off" above it.
Since then, Fox News has witnessed hundreds of migrants being released into the area in just a few days. From there the migrants are transported via taxis to bus stations and airports.
The source said the reporting only scratches the surface and that the mass releases have been happening discretely since February, that ICE fugitive operations teams are essentially nonexistent and that ICE Enforcement and Removal Operation (ERO) has become what the source called an "unofficial travel coordination agency."
"Between [releases] and the vaccine mandate the morale is at the lowest,’ the source said. "Imagine going to the office to make phone calls all day to coordinate travel for someone who just came in illegally, some of them with criminal records."
The Biden administration has drastically limited ICE’s scope for arrests and deportations, blocking worksite enforcement raids, barring agents from making arrests at certain locations and limiting enforcement to three priorities – recent border crossers, aggravated felons and national security threats.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently touted the Biden administration’s rule that an illegal immigrant’s illegal status should not be the basis of an enforcement action against them.
"We have fundamentally changed immigration enforcement in the interior," Mayorkas declared in an interview with CBS News
The ICE source told Fox that the agency is now releasing migrants with misdemeanor crimes such as assault, DUI, drug possession and illegal re-entry, and only withholding those with serious felonies.
As for whether the American taxpayer is paying the bill for migrant travel, the agent told Fox: "We make contact with the family members and ask them for an address and to please buy a ticket (bus or plane). If they don't, then the NGO buys the ticket and bills the government."
ICE told Fox News this week that it makes custody determinations on a "case by case" basis in accordance with law and considering the merits of each case. It also transports migrants to airports and transit hubs, and coordinates with non-governmental organizations to provide migrants with shelter, food, clothing and transport. The agency also confirmed that it has established an operations center in Brownsville to support individuals and manage COVID-19 testing.
In a statement to Fox on Friday, ICE said it "does not transport noncitizens into the interior of the U.S. for release, nor does it pay for the transportation of noncitizens who are released. ICE transports single adult noncitizens for purposes of detention, transport for medical purposes, staging for removal from the country, or transport to a point of release near a detention facility," a spokesperson said.
They also cited agency data that in FY 2022, more than 97% of those released from ICE custody have no criminal history, and pointed to the arrest of more than 12,200 noncitizens in the first quarter of FY 2022. Additionally, the agency says that detention can only be used to address a threat to public safety or a flight risk that cannot be mitigated by conditions placed on them.
The agency is also limited to 75% of bed space in its facilities due to social distancing guidelines related to COVID-19, and the agency evaluates those at higher risk of severe illness to determine whether detention is "appropriate." Those who are released are to make their own transport arrangement and to have a "temporary support plan" in place, the agency said.
Those who are released can be released on their own recognizance, ordered supervision, granted parole or bond.
There were more than 178,000 migrant apprehensions in December, coming on the back of a year that saw more than 212,000 monthly encounters at one point in the crisis. Many officials believe that the high numbers will continue through the year.
The Biden administration has rolled back a number of key Trump-era policies, but has been forced by court order to re-implement the Migrant Protection Protocols – which keep migrants in Mexico for their hearings. So far however, only a few hundred have been enrolled in the program.