WASHINGTON Hundreds of migrants are being flown from South Texas to holding cells in California by the Department of Homeland Security, in a move that officials said on Friday could be expanded by sending asylum seekers to processing centers throughout the United States, including the border with Canada.
Customs and Border Protection officials said they began flying migrant families from overcrowded facilities in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to San Diego on Tuesday. It is expected that as many as three flights, each carrying up to 135 migrants, will be scheduled each week.
The agency also recently started flying migrants five times each week from the Rio Grande Valley to Del Rio, Tex. Nearly all of the migrants are traveling as families, including some with young children.
It is rare for the Department of Homeland Security to fly undocumented immigrants between temporary holding centers in the United States just after crossing the border, and before they have been processed by the Border Patrol.
Given a court ruling that prohibits the government from detaining immigrant children for more than 20 days, the migrant families are likely to be given a notice to appear before an immigration judge, referred to a nonprofit organization and released into the public.
The government is not required to send migrants to places where they might have relatives. Customs and Border Protection officials said migrants would be sent to processing centers that would be best able to process them quickly.
The people who are coming here and claiming asylum, they dont need much. They need to get processed and they need to be put on a bus to a family member, said Kevin Malone, the executive director of the San Diego Organizing Project, which is affiliated with the national Faith and Action Network.
Why dont you just put them on a plane and take them where they need to go, to a family member or a sponsor? Mr. Malone said.
The flights are the Trump administrations latest attempt to grapple with a surge of Central American families crossing the United States border for asylum. Customs and Border Protection officials in April detained 109,144 migrants at the southwest border, including at its legal ports of entry, the highest total since 2007.
To ease the overcrowding at the facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, the agency is also busing migrants to Laredo, Tex.
The changes were outlined by Customs and Border Protection officials who were not authorized to discuss them publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said migrants could be sent to processing centers in unidentified coastal regions and the northern border with Canada if the number of immigrants coming to the United States continued to surge.
It was not clear how much the flights would cost.
Last month, Kevin McAleenan, the acting homeland security secretary, announced that the government would spend nearly $40 million to build two tent cities in Texas to process the migrant families.
On Friday, Customs and Border Protection officials said they needed to build additional temporary structures in Texas in Rio Grande City and McAllen to handle the surge.
The details of the flights came after Sheriff Ric L. Bradshaw of Palm Beach County, Fla., was told by regional Border Patrol officials this week to prepare for the monthly arrivals of up to 1,000 migrants from the El Paso area to South Florida.
In a matter of hours, the states Republican governor and both of its United States senators raised concerns about the plan. None of them were alerted ahead of time, despite their friendly ties to the Trump administration.
We cannot accommodate in Florida just dumping unlawful migrants into our state, Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Friday, adding that he recently signed legislation banning so-called sanctuary cities in the state. It will tax our resources: the schools, the health care, law enforcement, state agencies.
Customs and Border Protection officials said there were no set plans yet to fly migrants anywhere besides Texas and San Diego. All of the families would be given medical screenings before the flights.
Last November, President Trumps top aides suggested releasing migrants into sanctuary cities to ease overcrowding at facilities in border towns, and after House Democrats had resisted approving more money to detain undocumented immigrants. In sanctuary cities, local authorities have refused to refer undocumented immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in most cases to protest what they have described as the Trump administrations harsh immigration policies.
Since December, the federal government has released 180,000 migrant family members into the United States, including some at bus stations.
The entire immigration policy of the United States is relatively incoherent and lacks any logical or consequential thought patterns, said Sheriff William D. Snyder of Martin County, Fla. So why would this surprise anybody?
Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Washington, and Patricia Mazzei from Miami. Jose Del Real contributed reporting from San Diego.