WASHINGTON — Democrats and their allies are pushing back on GOP assertions that President Joe Biden is to blame for the latest wave of children crossing the border, but the latest numbers are muddling their message.
The U.S. government picked up nearly 19,000 children traveling alone across the Mexican border in March, authorities said Thursday. That's the largest monthly number ever recorded.
Those numbers have triggered hasty visits by lawmakers to the border.
The GOP has pounced on the increased numbers, with Republicans holding news conferences to blast Biden's reversal of former President Donald Trump's policies, including prosecuting all parents, taking their children from them and housing children in giant tents.
The response is furthering the partisan divide and slowing efforts to address outstanding immigration issues, such as backlogs in immigration courts and the multitude of immigrants who have been living and working in the country for decades without legal status.
The Border Patrol encountered 18,663 unaccompanied children in March, well above previous highs of 11,475 in May 2019 and 10,620 in June 2014. The agency started publishing the numbers in 2009. Before then, adults made up the vast majority of those crossing the border.
March’s count was roughly double the number of unaccompanied children encountered by the Border Patrol in February and more than five times the number in March 2020.
A complex mix of factors in the United States and Central America drove the increase in arrivals to the border. For many, a hurricane that hit Central America in November added urgency to endemic poverty and violence that have led people to flee for decades. Changes in U.S. policy under Biden also have guided their decisions, whether real or rumored.
It has coincided with the Biden administration’s decision to use pandemic-related powers to immediately expel most people from the country without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum.
Children are instead released to “sponsors” in the U.S., usually parents or close relatives, while being allowed to pursue their cases in heavily backlogged immigration courts.
At a news conference in McAllen, GOP members of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, blamed Biden for the current situation.
"Is the Biden administration deliberately imposing this policy because this is what they want?" Jordan said. "The solution is pretty simple, go back to the policies that were working."
The Trump administration put in place a "zero-tolerance" policy that required the prosecution of all people charged with illegally crossing the border, including parents whose children were taken from them. Court rulings forced the Trump administration to reunite families, but some children still have not been reunited with parents.
The newest numbers were released as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made a stop on the Texas border at El Paso and in South Texas. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., House Homeland Security committee chairman, also was on the border in El Paso.
Mayorkas' quick visit to El Paso included listening to advocates, whom one advocacy group leader said have been "starved for engagement, now, for quite some time."
The huge increase in children traveling alone — some as young as 3 — and families has severely strained border holding facilities, which aren’t allowed to hold people for more than three days but often do. It’s left the government scrambling to find space and hire staff to care for children longer term until they can be placed with sponsors.
Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, whose congressional district encompasses El Paso, said at a news conference Thursday that President Donald Trump did the right thing last September when he followed Centers of Disease Control guidelines and reduced capacity at each shelter as another wave of Covid-19 cases occurred and arrivals of unaccompanied minors were increasing.
But she said he chose not to follow Health and Human Services advice to find other shelters, limiting their capacity to prepare for rising numbers of arrivals of children "which happened under that administration."
"The Biden administration had to quickly ramp up" but is running into a hiring "slowdown", she said.
No easy fixes amid growing numbers
Escobar cautioned that fixing the situation in Central America will take a long time. She said Biden is following an administration that had only one Senate-confirmed ambassador in the region and used strong arm tactics rather than diplomacy.
She said Trump's policy of forcing people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico for court hearings gave smugglers the opportunity to become more sophisticated.
Amid the growing numbers, more than 4,000 people at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding facility have been jammed into a space designed for 250 at a tent complex in Donna, Texas. They lay inches apart on mats on the floor with foil blankets.
CBP must transfer unaccompanied children within 72 hours to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, whose facilities are more suited to longer-term care while arrangements are made to release them. More than 2,000 children were held longer than that at the Donna facility one day last week, with 39 there at least 15 days.
HHS opened its first temporary holding facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, on Feb. 22, and has since struck a slew of agreements to occupy large venues near the border, including convention centers in Dallas and San Diego, a stadium in San Antonio and Fort Bliss army base in El Paso, Texas. The department also has been paying for flights for children and sponsors to limit time in government custody.
Escobar said the Biden administration is shrinking the amount of time children are spending in the HHS shelters that they go to from the CBP holding sites. She said that, in 2019, she met children in HHS shelters for 6 months to 9 months and over a year in a Homestead, Fla. shelter. Under Biden, the children have been in facilities for 30 days to 35 days and in an El Paso shelter, 28 days, she said.
Overall, the Border Patrol had 168,195 encounters with migrants on the southern border in March, its busiest month since March 2001, when it counted 170,580 arrests. The numbers aren’t entirely comparable because more than half of last month’s encounters resulted in expulsions under pandemic-related authority instituted by former President Donald Trump and kept in place by Biden.
People who are expelled are far more likely to try again because they face no legal consequences.
Mexico’s refusal to accept Central American families with children 6 and under because of a new law against detaining migrant families has limited the effectiveness of expulsions, administration officials said. Mexico is especially reluctant to accept families with young children in Tamaulipas state bordering the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.
That means hundreds of migrant families go to bus stations in Texas border towns like McAllen and Brownsville on their way to their final destinations in the U.S. To save time, the Border Patrol last month began releasing migrant families — about 9,600 people as of Tuesday, according to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas — without notices to appear in court, instead directing them to report to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in 60 days.
Numbers grew sharply during Trump’s final year in office but further accelerated under Biden, who quickly ended many of his predecessor’s policies, including one that made asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for court hearings in the U.S.
Mexicans represented the largest proportion of people encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol, and nearly all were single adults. Arrivals of people from Honduras and Guatemala were second and third, respectively, and more than half of the people from those countries were families or children traveling alone.