EL PASO, Texas, March 26 (UPI) -- Immigration checkpoints on highways leading from the Mexican border into the United States have been closed because the U.S Border Patrol has reassigned agents to El Paso, Texas, to process a massive influx of migrant families, agency officials said.
"To process and ensure appropriate care for those in custody, resources including personnel have been diverted from other border security priorities," U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement Monday. "Currently, El Paso sector has shut down immigration checkpoints and moved agents to assist with the processing of these aliens."
The move, which authorities called temporary, enables motorists to move unimpeded down highways into the United States, improving travel times. When immigration checkpoints are open all drivers have to pull off the highway and stop so Border Patrol agents can ask travelers their citizenship status. Authorities also use sniffer dogs around vehicles to check for illegal drugs.
The El Paso sector includes all of New Mexico and two West Texas counties. There are five checkpoints on highways leading from El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M.
But closing immigration checkpoints deprives the U.S. government of a key method of stopping undocumented migrants and interdicting illegal drugs, according to Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates eliminating illegal immigration.
"The influx of families has become so bad that the Border Patrol has to do serious triage in deploying agents, and other missions are suffering," Vaughan said.
"The closures of these interior checkpoints should be of concern to everyone because interior checkpoints are another opportunity away from the border to apprehend those making their way into the interior, whether illegal migrants or drug smugglers or border crossing card violators."
At immigration checkpoints nationwide since Jan. 1, the Border Patrol said it has seized more than 6,000 pounds of marijuana, 52 pound of heroin, 456 pounds of cocaine, 1,188 pounds of methamphetamine and 36 pounds of fentanyl. The agency does not release interdiction statistics for each sector or report how many undocumented migrants it apprehends at checkpoints.
Interior immigration checkpoints have attracted criticism from civil rights groups. The American Civil Liberties Union says they jeopardize the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on "random stops and arbitrary searches."
"The ACLU believes that these checkpoints amount to dragnet, suspicionless stops that cannot be reconciled with Fourth Amendment protections," the organization said on its website.
Last year, the organization released a guide called "Know Your Rights at Interior Immigration Checkpoints" so people can understand what Border Patrol can and can't do at a checkpoint.
Meanwhile, the migrant surge is also having an impact on city authorities and local nonprofit services in El Paso. The City Council held a special session Monday morning to discuss how it could respond to what City Manager Tommy Gonzalez referred to as a "local public safety emergency."
Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House -- El Paso's nonprofit shelter, told council members that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told him it would release 622 migrants Monday.
"We have space for the 292 migrants immigration will release this morning," Garcia told the council. "But I have no idea where to house the more than 300 people immigration authorities told me they are going to release this afternoon."