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GAO: New Immigration Process Created Challenges

ERO officials are concerned about the continuing workload their field offices will experience given the large numbers of family units whom Border Patrol has released into the country under parole plus ATD in the spring of 2022.

U.S. Border Patrol encountered 1.7 million noncitizens between ports of entry in FY 2021, a 300% increase over FY 2020. This included approximately 451,000 apprehensions of family unit members. 

To help deal with this increase, Border Patrol created two processes to release families (parents and children under 18) into the U.S. without initiating immigration removal proceedings. This reduced their time in Border Patrol custody. Border Patrol told the families to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to start their immigration court proceedings.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that as of March 1, 2022, about 75% of these family members had reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as required. 

GAO says U.S. Border Patrol’s implementation of the Notice to Report (NTR) process created challenges for ICE. The agencies sought to address these challenges by developing the parole plus Alternatives to Detention (ATD) process. 

In March 2021, Border Patrol initiated the NTR process quickly to reduce agents’ administrative processing times by releasing noncitizen family units (parents and children under 18) without Notices to Appear. However, ICE officials were concerned that family units were not reporting to field offices as required. Further, ICE had difficulty locating some of these individuals due to limited address information. Border Patrol released about 94,000 family unit members with an NTR before terminating this process in November 2021.

Border Patrol officials told GAO that they did not participate in any planning for the new NTR process, and also did not receive advance notice from headquarters before they were instructed to implement the NTR process. Specifically, officials in the Rio Grande Valley sector stated that they received guidance from headquarters on March 20, 2021, and began implementing the process the next day. Senior ICE officials told GAO that, if Border Patrol had given them the opportunity to provide input during the development of the NTR process, they would have recommended changes prior to its implementation.

In July and August 2021, Border Patrol and ICE developed and implemented a second process whereby agents release family units into the U.S. on humanitarian parole and enroll the heads of household in ICE’s ATD program (or, parole plus ATD). ATD uses case management and electronic monitoring to help ensure noncitizens comply with their release conditions, allowing ICE to better track those released without a Notice to Appear. From July 2021 through February 2022, Border Patrol released about 91,000 family unit members under parole plus ATD.

According to Border Patrol data reviewed by GAO, sectors began decreasing the frequency with which they used NTRs with the implementation of parole plus ATD in late summer 2021. During a three-month period when certain Border Patrol sectors had authorization to use both NTRs and parole plus ATD, the number of family unit members processed with NTRs decreased from about 33,000 in July 2021 to about 2,000 in September 2021. Border Patrol officials said that being able to transition from NTRs to parole plus ATD was dependent, in part, on the availability of ATD technologies at Border Patrol facilities.

In June, as well as finding that the number of individuals enrolled in ATD more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, GAO also discovered that during this period, ICE unenrolled most participants before their immigration proceedings concluded. ICE placed about half of unenrolled participants on monitoring outside of the ATD program and about a quarter absconded. In response to these findings, the Department of Homeland Security concurred with GAO’s recommendations to improve implementation, assessment, and oversight of the ATD program and its $2.2 billion contract, including that ICE establish performance goals that cover core program activities, improve external reporting of absconsion information, collect information needed to assess the contractor’s performance against standards, and ensure the contractor addresses all audit findings.

During the course of its latest review, GAO found that ICE has efforts underway to initiate removal proceedings for family units that Border Patrol released with an NTR or under parole plus ATD. As mentioned above, as of March 1, 2022, about three-quarters of family unit members (nearly 140,000) had reported to an ICE field office. To try to locate those who had not reported, ICE undertook several nationwide enforcement operations between November 2021 and June 2022. ICE officials told GAO that family units that do not report, or that ICE does not locate, are to be referred for further enforcement action on a case-by-case basis to focus on the greatest threats to homeland security.

Family unit members who do not report at all are to be referred to the Fugitive Operation division for further enforcement action, as appropriate. GAO has previously reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration enforcement agencies do not have the operational capability to apprehend, detain, and remove every individual who is unlawfully present in the U.S. ICE officers are to make discretionary enforcement decisions on a case-by-case basis to focus on the greatest threats to homeland security, according to officials. ICE officials stated that, as resources allow and based on the facts and circumstances of each case, they will continue to take steps to locate family unit members who have not reported as instructed and for whom ICE does not have valid addresses.

GAO determined that Border Patrol and ICE took steps to improve the quality and sharing of data, including addresses. Specifically, Border Patrol gave ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) access to more data on those processed with an NTR or under parole plus ATD within U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Unified Immigration Portal. In the summer of 2021, Border Patrol developed a dashboard within the portal that provided ERO with access to summary information on those processed with NTRs and under parole plus ATD. ERO headquarters officials told GAO that they used Border Patrol’s data in the portal to create their own internal dashboard to monitor ERO’s efforts to process family units and issue Notices to Appear. 

ERO reported facing challenges processing family unit members due to space constraints within its field offices. Most field offices are not equipped to handle several hundred visitors per day in a large-scale processing operation, with one having a waiting area that can accommodate only six people. ERO officials also stated that they are concerned about the continuing workload their field offices will experience given the large numbers of family units whom Border Patrol has released into the country under parole plus ATD in the spring of 2022. As of March 20, 2022, ICE issued Notices to Appear to about half of all family unit members (about 100,000) processed with an NTR or under parole plus ATD. 

In July 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and ICE issued a new policy under which they will share responsibility for initiating removal proceedings for those released without Notices to Appear. 

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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