By Kate Morrissey

A flight of migrant families who crossed illegally into the Rio Grande Valley area of the southwest border will arrive in San Diego this afternoon, according to Border Patrol.

It is the first official flight here in a new plan to help agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector process everyone in its custody. That sector, which is over capacity, had more than 6,000 people in custody this morning, compared with about 800 in custody in the San Diego area, according to Border Patrol.

"That's our Border Patrol sisters and brothers in the Rio Grande Valley who are faced with this wave of people," said interim Chief Patrol Agent Douglas Harrison, who has been on the job in San Diego for three days after the sector's chief was sent to Washington on special assignment. "We want to help the overall organization."

The San Diego plan is in addition to migrants who are already being transported from the Rio Grande Valley to the Del Rio Sector in another part of the Texas border. There are other plans under discussion that would ship migrant families to Florida and parts of the Northern border as well, Harrison said.

As a start, Border Patrol plans to send three flights per week of 120 to 135 people each to San Diego, Harrison said. Those flights and the subsequent buses to Border Patrol stations will be operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or its contractors, Harrison said. He deferred further details on ICE's work to that agency.

Rio Grande Valley agents will do an abbreviated intake of those it sends to San Diego to gather basic biographical information and do medical screenings to make sure the family members are well enough to travel. Upon arrival in San Diego, migrants, under the current plan, will go to Border Patrol's Brown Field Station, though that may change based on individual station capacity.

Agents there will conduct a full intake of the migrants, which includes taking fingerprints and photographs. That process can take several hours.

Agents will not know how many of the migrants are asylum seekers until they are processed in San Diego, Harrison said.

No unaccompanied children will be included in the flights, but agents are preparing for the possibility of fraudulent family claims when the migrants arrive in San Diego. Children can be separated from adults who immigration officials determine are not actually their parents, and those children become unaccompanied minors in the system.

ICE investigators will be on hand to make those determinations during intake, Harrison said.

Once Border Patrol finishes processing the arrivals, agents will turn them over to another part of ICE for custody determination. How quickly that happens can vary, Harrison said, from a few hours to a few days. The goal is to move people out of Border Patrol's holding cells within 72 hours.

The additional work, he said, could affect resources for San Diego operations.

"We're going to do the best we can to do both," Harrison said. "There's logically a potential impact."

ICE will decide whether to detain the families or release them into the community.

Because of constraints on the amount of time children can be held in detention, and the fact that there are no family detention centers in California, ICE generally releases families with ankle monitors on the adults to ensure they show up for their court dates.

When ICE ended a program that helped those released families make contact with relatives or friends already in the U.S. so that they would have a place to go and a way to get there, local nonprofits working together as the San Diego Rapid Response Network opened a shelter that has since gotten support from local and state officials.

It is likely that many of the additional families coming to San Diego will end up in the Network's shelter in downtown San Diego before moving on to their final destinations in the homes of family and friends.

It was not immediately known if the arriving migrant families might be subject to Migrant Protection Protocols, a program that returns some Central American asylum seekers to Mexico to wait for their U.S. immigration court cases.

Harrison, who is on loan from the Detroit Sector, said he is proud of the work he has seen so far in San Diego in response to the increased number of arriving families along the southwest border.

"They're doing baby formula. They're doing diapers," Harrison said. "They're doing great work."

Yesterday when he visited the Imperial Beach station, he said, he learned of an infant being held there who is lactose-intolerant and needed a special baby formula. The station didn't have any on hand, so one of the supervisors went out on his own to get it, Harrison said.

San Diego Border Patrol received a test flight of migrant families, 126 people total, on Tuesday, the interim chief said. The plan is set to continue indefinitely.

"This is a contingency operation," Harrison said. "We've got to give the people in Rio Grande Valley some relief."

(c)2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune