Advocates, local officials concerned ICE is dropping off migrants at bus stop in Phoenix

Rafael Carranza
Arizona Republic
Dozens of Central American migrants were dropped off at a Phoenix Greyhound bus station by ICE federal officials in 2019.

U.S. immigration officers in Arizona have resumed dropping off certain migrants near the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix, rekindling concerns from advocates and elected officials about the practice.

They question why U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has chosen to drop off migrants at a bus stop next to the station instead of transporting them to the centralized migrant shelter that has been open in Phoenix since July 2019.

Local nonprofits raced to open the shelter near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport amid an influx in migrant arrivals in 2019, in large part to avoid having ICE drop off migrants near the Greyhound bus terminal, leaving volunteers to scramble to assist them at the time.

Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, the ICE spokesperson in Arizona, confirmed the agency's Enforcement and Removal Operations, or ERO, branch has been dropping off single adults at a Phoenix bus stop, but only under certain conditions.

The majority of migrants, especially families, continue to be released to the care of nonprofits or to contracted shelter facilities in the state.

"In Arizona, ERO is placing families at contracted Emergency Family Staging Centers, as well as releasing to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide assistance with immediate basic needs, such as temporary shelter, food, water, clothing, and transportation services," she said in an emailed statement.

ICE ERO takes custody of migrants after they are apprehended and processed at the U.S.-Mexico border. The agency determines whether to place migrants in detention, or release them under alternatives to detention or supervised release.

On April 19, ICE officials in Arizona informed local stakeholders in Phoenix that the agency would begin transporting some single adults cleared for release to a transit center, according to Stanford Prescott, the community engagement coordinator at the International Rescue Committee.

The IRC operates the Welcome Center, the name of the centralized migrant shelter that nonprofits opened in 2019 in Phoenix, with the capacity to house up to 150 migrants each night.

International Rescue Committee community engagement coordinator Stanford Prescott speaks out against an all-time low for refugee admissions of 18,000 for fiscal year 2020 at the Rise For Refugees Press Conference at the Arizona State Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.

Prescott said they are in communication with the federal government. But he added that he did not understand why ICE was transporting migrants to the bus station, instead of the Welcome Center.

"There's no reason why individuals cannot be taken to services that are explicitly there to serve them, when there's available capacity," he said.

A Greyhound spokesperson said they were aware ICE was dropping off migrants, but emphasized the drop offs were at a Phoenix Public Transit Department bus stop, which is located next to the bus terminal.

Arizona has seen an uptick in the arrival of migrant families this year, especially through the Yuma area.

The majority of those families are not expelled to Mexico, and are instead processed by Border Patrol, and then placed into ICE custody. Or border agents release them to nonprofits along border communities. Either way, most of the families end up at migrant shelters in Phoenix and Tucson. 

Pitts-O'Keefe said that ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations division also has been releasing single adults who were held in ICE detention facilities in Florence and Eloy in central Arizona.

Because these facilities are so far away from accessible transportation options, ERO has been transporting single adults to the bus stop in Phoenix, in accordance with the agency's Performance-Based National Detention Standards, she added.

Released adults are already in immigration proceedings and had been cleared for release. They also had the opportunity to make travel arrangements before they were dropped off, Pitts-O'Keefe said.

"ERO officers ask all individuals being released to the bus station whether they have coordinated travel arrangements prior to departure from the facility, whether a bus ticket is being or has been purchased on their behalf, or whether they have made arrangements for pick up from a friend or family member," she said. "These inquiries take place prior to the individual’s transportation to the bus station." 

Still, nonprofits and advocates expressed other concerns about the ongoing release of single adults near the bus station, chief among them COVID-19.

The four detention facilities in Pinal County that hold ICE detainees have had hundreds of positive cases, including 220 active cases under isolation or monitoring as of Wednesday, according to information posted online by ICE.

La Palma Correctional Facility in Eloy accounts for 152 confirmed active cases, the second largest outbreak in ICE detention facilities nationwide.

Pitts-O'Keefe said all individuals released from ICE detention facilities are provided "necessary" personal protective equipment when they leave. She added that ICE is not authorized to hold anyone in detention after an immigration judge has ordered them released, even if they have COVID-19.

"When an individual being released tests positive for COVID, a medical professional counsels the individual on the CDC recommended guidelines, such as wearing PPE and quarantining," she said. "In addition, the individual’s sponsor, should they have one, and county public health officials, are notified." 

Prescott said the International Rescue Committee provides rapid COVID-19 testing to all individuals transported to the Welcome Center. All migrants must test negative before they are able to make travel plans further into the U.S.

"For individuals that are released at other locations, we are not able to provide that testing," he said. "So that means that when these releases at bus stations occur, the releases do not actively connect with some of the measures being taken with the health department."

Amy Bolton, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Joint Information Center, said the county was aware of the drop-offs at the bus station. Officials are working to direct any migrants dropped off at the bus station to the Welcome Center to access services, including COVID-19 testing, she said.

"When an individual tests positive, IRC and Maricopa County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) work collaboratively to provide isolation housing for the individual, and their family, to mitigate further spread of disease to the surrounding community," Bolton said in a written statement. 

She added that the county is working to add information, such as directions and phone numbers, at the bus station to help migrants make their way to or arrange for transportation to the Welcome Center.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego expressed additional concerns about dropping off migrants at the Greyhound bus station, especially as Phoenix hit 100 degrees Wednesday. 

Gallego said she was concerned about ensuring that released migrants had access to resources and information offered at the Welcome Center, to avoid having them stranded or become victims of fraud in a country they are unfamiliar with.

“I think the Welcome Center is the humane source, and the current system of dropping off outside of Greyhound does feel a little bit inhumane," Gallego said. "Councilwoman (Laura) Pastor and I have reached out to the administration to ask that they take a look at this and go back to the original policy.”

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