SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Monday canceled plans to begin flying illegal immigrants to California from Texas, where processing centers have been overwhelmed by a surge of Central American arrivals including children traveling alone, officials said.
More than 47,000 unaccompanied minors are thought to have entered the country illegally between October and May, nearly twice as many as the year before, leading to crowded facilities in Texas and efforts to move some to other states.
The Customs and Border Protection agency on Monday gave no reason for the cancellation. An official with the agency’s union said the move reflected public opposition.
Border Patrol officials in Southern California had been expecting a flight carrying 140 immigrants picked up in Texas to arrive on Monday, and San Diego Sector Chief Paul Beeson said similar flights were then expected to land every three days.
He said his officers were expecting to process the new arrivals and hold them in custody until immigration authorities determined what to do with them. But late on Sunday he told Reuters those plans had been canceled.
A Border Patrol spokesman declined further comment on Monday.
President Barack Obama has called the flood of illegal immigrant children an urgent humanitarian crisis, and the Department of Homeland Security said on Friday it was looking for more facilities to house the minors.
The influx comes as a number of U.S. groups push for policy reform to allow the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to obtain a pathway to citizenship, even as many Republicans complain the federal government is not doing enough to secure the country’s southern border.
Republicans blame the surge of children on Obama’s 2012 decision to give temporary relief from deportation to some young people brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
Many of the youngsters are believed to be escaping poverty, organized crime and drug-fueled violence in countries such as Honduras and El Salvador, in hope of a better life in the north.
Underlining the stretched conditions in U.S. Southwestern states, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has slammed as “dangerous and unconscionable” a policy that in one instance saw hundreds of migrants detained in Texas released at Arizona bus stations.
The Obama administration says it is boosting the number of immigration judges, lawyers and asylum officers to decide quickly what happens to people apprehended at the border.
Gabe Pacheco, a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council union, said the cancellation of the California flights was likely due to public pressure.
He said agents were worried about safety and being stretched too thin by the new arrivals, even as they collected clothes and shoes for the young people and families who make up the majority of those detained.
“It was political, plain and simple,” Pacheco said. “Public outcry after people found out that illegal immigrants from Central America were most likely going to be released here in California made them stop.”
Reporting by Marty Graham; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman