Written by Stephen Loiaconi
Published by KATV
WASHINGTON (SBG) — The Biden administration continued to downplay a dramatic rise in migrants encountered by authorities at the southern border as the number of unaccompanied children in custody hit an all-time high, but questions are growing about the White House response and the potential political fallout.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics released Thursday, border officials detained 172,331 migrants in March, including 18,890 unaccompanied minors and 52,904 members of family units. The figures marked a 71% increase over February and a 400% increase over the same period last year.
“CBP has experienced an increase in encounters and arrests. This is not new. Encounters have continued to increase since April 2020, and our past experiences have helped us be better prepared for the challenges we face this year,” top CBP official Troy Miller said in a statement.
The latest numbers suggest there is something new going on, though. While apprehensions began to rise under President Donald Trump and seasonal increases are normal in the spring, March was the Border Patrol’s busiest month since 2001, and there is little reason to expect numbers to dip significantly until at least the summer.
“I think what we’re facing right now is a large logistical challenge at the border. How long it will last is very hard to tell,” said Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.
President Joe Biden has publicly urged Central Americans not to travel to the U.S. The administration also recently ramped up radio ads in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, warning people not to “put your kids’ lives at risk based on false hopes.”
Those pleas do not appear to be having much impact. Interviews with migrants show many expect they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. under Biden while their cases are adjudicated, which can take years, and that has turned out to be true for tens of thousands of children and a growing number of families.
Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden administration has continued the Trump-era reliance on public health authority under Title 42 to expel most single adult migrants and some families. However, Biden is no longer applying that policy to unaccompanied children, and Mexico has refused to take back many families with small children under a law passed last fall.
Because Title 42 expulsion carries no legal consequence, migrants have often made multiple attempts to cross the border in recent months. About 60% of migrants detained in March were expelled pursuant to Title 42, and 28% of those individuals had previously been turned away under the same authority.
Although single adults still make up the largest share of border encounters and most of them are sent back to Mexico, only about 33% of the families detained at the border in March were expelled due to capacity limits in Mexico. Those that remain in the U.S. are eventually released with notices to appear for immigration court proceedings or are directed to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in 60 days.
Unaccompanied children and teens still account for about 10% of migrants detained at the border overall, but the number of minors taken into custody doubled in March, hitting the highest level ever recorded. The nearly 19,000 children encountered last month far exceeded numbers seen during previous surges in 2014 and 2019.
Children stay in CBP custody until they can be transferred to Department of Health and Human Services facilities, where they are housed until they are released to sponsors, typically parents or close relatives. The Biden administration has scrambled to find enough shelters to hold children, and many have been stuck in overcrowded CBP detention centers for longer than federal law allows.
The latest government data shows more than 20,000 minors remain in CBP or HHS custody. According to The Washington Post, the Biden administration appears to be spending at least $60 million per week caring for those children, and those costs are expected to rise in the coming months.
There are some signs of improvement: new daily apprehensions have decreased over the last two weeks, and transfers of children from CBP to HHS custody have accelerated. Republicans and Democrats agree more needs to be done to control the situation, but they are bitterly divided over how to fix it and how much responsibility President Biden bears for it.
“The border crisis is a humanitarian crisis and will not get better until President Biden works with Congress to find a solution to securing our border,” Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, tweeted Friday after visiting a migrant holding facility in San Antonio where abuse has been alleged.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday Biden is on “a good path at the border,” despite the record numbers of detentions. She pointed a finger at former President Trump for dismantling systems to house and process asylum-seekers and refugees.
“It’s about restructuring how we do what is happening there, because we were in a very bad situation under the Trump administration,” Pelosi said.
The factors driving the current uptick in border apprehensions are numerous and complex. Central Americans are being driven north by a combination of crime, corruption, economic distress, natural disasters, the effects of the pandemic, and the expectation of a better life in America.
“The tendency is to try to reduce the migrant decision to either push factors or pull factors, and the reality is a lot more complicated than that…,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It is mass desperation and lack of hope. They simply see no path to survival where they are.”
Critics have also cast blame on Biden for unraveling many of Trump’s hardline immigration policies in his first days in office. In addition to letting unaccompanied children stay in the U.S., Biden reversed a Trump initiative that forced asylum applicants to stay in Mexico while their cases were processed, halted border wall construction, and attempted to place a 100-day moratorium on most deportations.
“The president’s open border policies are directly responsible for the abuse and death of children at the hands of criminal cartels, and an invitation to criminals and terrorists to prey on the American people,” said Mark Morgan, former acting director of CBP under Trump and a senior fellow at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, in a statement.
Word that the U.S. is again allowing unaccompanied children to remain in the country—which had been standard policy for years under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act until the pandemic hit—appears to be affecting the behavior of some migrant families. However, experts say the realities of U.S. immigration policies still matter less than what smugglers, friends, and family members tell Central Americans.
“The smugglers have a business model of facilitating and encouraging as much migration as possible and they will tell migrants what they want to hear…,” Brown said. “Messaging from the administration is a minor factor.”
The last major surge of migration came while President Trump was pursuing some of the most aggressive border enforcement policies in recent history. The current upward trend began last spring when Trump was turning away virtually all migrants under Title 42.
Still, pressure is growing on Biden to change course. Multiple groups of Republican lawmakers have visited border facilities in the last few weeks, spotlighting what they call “Biden’s border crisis,” and polls show public concern about the president’s handling of immigration is rising.
The White House and immigration advocates have pushed back on the “crisis” framing. Central Americans have a legal right to petition for asylum, and they maintain unaccompanied children who are placed in the care of U.S. sponsors until their cases are resolved pose no threat.
“For Republicans, their answer is, keep out and kick out,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said in a statement. “Migrants and refugees are fellow human beings who should be welcomed with dignity and given a chance to pursue refugee status under our laws.”
The Biden administration has committed to tackling the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle, and Vice President Kamala Harris has been designated to lead diplomatic efforts with those countries. Fixing broken societies, reforming institutions, and eliminating corruption could take years, though.
“The long, long-term solution… is increasing safety and security in Central America,” Heyman said.
In the meantime, the U.S. is pressing for greater cooperation from Mexico and the Northern Triangle governments in enforcing their immigration laws. Stricter enforcement in Mexico, fueled by threats of tariffs, helped drive down U.S. border apprehensions under Trump, but human rights groups argue it placed migrants at greater risk.
If convincing people not to try to come to the U.S. or send their children is proving ineffective and Biden has ruled out expelling children, experts say the administration must increase resources for HHS to care for minors and improve capacity to process them quickly.
“It can increase the number of non-Border Patrol personnel to speed the relocation of minors and the vetting of sponsors, hire more immigration judges to process immigration and asylum applications,” said Ernesto Castañeda, founding director of the Immigration Lab at American University.
As hundreds of children are taken into custody at the border daily, the administration has rushed to open temporary shelters across the Southwest at sites like convention centers and military bases. Biden is also reviving a program that allows children to apply for asylum from their home countries.
“It’s a bit of a race,” Brown said. “How can they expand capacity faster than the arrivals are coming?”
The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 released Friday includes $861 million to address causes of migration in Central America, $345 million to clear naturalization and asylum backlogs, funding to “rebuild” the refugee resettlement infrastructure, hiring 100 new immigration judges and support staff, $1.2 billion for non-wall-related border security, and $10 billion for humanitarian assistance to support vulnerable people abroad.
As the Biden administration struggles to house and process the thousands of children and families taken into CBP custody, additional challenges loom. Immigrant rights groups have challenged the use of Title 42 to expel adult migrants in court, and the success of vaccination efforts could make claims of public health concerns untenable in the months ahead.
“It is a matter of time before Mexico says we can’t do this anymore,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said after meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in El Paso Thursday, describing the current situation as “unsustainable.”
Lifting the Title 42 restrictions would leave the administration with tens of thousands more migrants per month to process and no expedited path to remove them. That could create enormous logistical and political problems, although it also might ease the numbers of children arriving at the border alone.
“We will see fewer unaccompanied minors and more family units, making the process easier because for accompanied minors, there is no need to locate sponsors in the U.S.,” Castañeda said.
Brown hopes the Biden administration is already preparing for that eventuality. Until conditions change to discourage people in Central America from trying to travel north, figuring out how to handle them better when they arrive might be the only option.
“Strong-arm deterrence may have short-term impacts but is not necessarily going to impact migration over the long run, because the things that force people to leave their countries are much stronger,” Brown said.