PHOENIX (USA TODAY) -- Scores of undocumented immigrants from Central America have been released at Greyhound Lines Inc. bus stations in Tucson and Phoenix over the past several days after they were flown to Arizona from south Texas, officials acknowledged.
Andy Adame, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Tucson, confirmed that over the weekend federal officials flew about 400 migrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas to Tucson to be processed. He said the migrants were flown to Arizona because the Border Patrol does not have enough manpower to handle a surge in illegal immigrants in south Texas.
The release has drawn criticism from those on both sides of the immigration issue.
Border enforcement groups are concerned that the migrants will now disappear into the U.S., spurring even more to come illegally.
"This is a huge concern," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for more immigration and border enforcement.
"This is exactly the incentive for people to cross the border illegally," he said.
Humanitarian groups are concerned that immigration officials are dropping migrants off at bus stations to fend for themselves without food, water and basic necessities.
"It's not safe healthwise and we are concerned for their physical safety," said Cyndi Whitmore, a volunteer with the Phoenix Restoration Project, an advocacy group that has been going to the bus terminal in Phoenix to help.
She said that Tuesday night she went to the Greyhound station on Buckeye Road and found 50 women and young children who had just been released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Among the children were infants 6 months old.
"Some of the kids were crying," Whitmore said. "Some were infants that weren't fully clothed. They didn't have diapers. They didn't have formula."
Laurie Melrood, a volunteer family advocate in Tucson, said ICE has been dropping off small numbers of migrants at the Greyhound bus station there for about seven months.
But on Monday, she said, ICE dropped off about 70 people, followed by another 90 on Tuesday and at least 60 on Wednesday.
She said all of the migrants dropped off this week were women and children. In the past, most were adult men and women.
"The conditions under which they are released are inadequate and inhumane," she said.
In response, volunteers in Phoenix and Tucson have been going to the bus stations to help the migrants make arrangements to buy bus tickets to travel to relatives in other cities. They also have been providing food, water and other necessities.
South Texas is now the main gateway for illegal immigration along the Southwest border with Mexico. Border Patrol arrests in the Tucson Sector have plummeted in recent years but have soared in the Rio Grande Valley. Last fiscal year, Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley Sector apprehended 154,453 immigrants attempting to cross, up from 97,762 the previous year, according to USA TODAY.
ICE officials said the migrants being released are families apprehended by the Border Patrol trying to enter the U.S. illegally. After screening, they are being released under supervision and then required to report to a local ICE office near their destination within 15 days.
Their cases will be managed based on ICE enforcement priorities, which focus on removing criminals who pose a threat as well as recent border crossers and immigration violators.
But Mehlman at FAIR said that once migrants are released, they often disappear and ICE doesn't go looking for them unless they have criminal records.
ICE officials said the agency began transporting migrants to the bus station in Phoenix after Greyhound officials complained the station in Tucson was being overwhelmed.
In response to criticism, the agency started giving migrants sack lunches and allowing them calls to make travel arrangements.
ICE was unable to confirm if all 400 migrants flown to Arizona were released.