The number of migrant families with children crossing the southern border has nearly tripled in the past two months, according to Customs and Border Protection data obtained by NBC News, feeding concern among some senior administration officials about a potential uptick in overall migrant crossings.
Earlier this week, more than 2,230 migrants were crossing the border daily on average, up from 790 in early June. While single adults are still the largest demographic seen at the border, families are the fastest-growing demographic of undocumented border crossers, according to the data. Most of the migrants are from northern Central America and Mexico, according to the data.
Three senior Department of Homeland Security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity say they are closely watching the number of families coming because of growing concern the numbers could soon spike and send border numbers back to near record highs.
Immigrant advocates say more families are crossing to escape poverty and violence in their home countries, as well as to escape cartels and extreme heat they encounter while waiting to cross in Mexico.
Since the Covid restrictions known as Title 42 were lifted in mid-May, the number of migrants crossing the border without documents or appointments for asylum hearings fell to fewer than 145,000, compared to more than 207,000 in May.
But with the rise in family numbers, the dip may be short-lived. If current trends continue, more than 160,000 migrants could cross the border without documents or appointments over the next month.
Conservative critics have said migrants have incentives to bring children with them on the long and dangerous journey north to the U.S. because they are more likely to be released to pursue asylum claims.
Unlike single adults, migrants who cross the border as part of families with one or more children under age 18 are not put in immigration detention under current Biden administration policy.
The three DHS officials who spoke to NBC News said the Biden administration is not considering detaining migrant families. The Obama administration detained migrant families when the demographic first began to rise in 2014. Though Biden administration officials considered detention of families as a possible deterrent to migrants when DHS officials thought numbers would rise after the end of Title 42, they ultimately decided it was inhumane.
Instead, the administration is using a new program in which recently arrived migrant families in four U.S. cities are placed on curfews and the heads of their households must wear ankle monitors until their immigration court dates.
Other policy options, including expanding the areas where migrant families are placed on ankle monitors pending their immigration proceedings, may be on the table, the three officials said.
In a statement, a DHS spokesperson said, “Families encountered at the border are being processed through Expedited Removal with strict conditions, including continuous monitoring and home curfews. DHS has already removed families through this new non-detained enforcement process. CBP has surged personnel and transportation resources to strategic locations to respond to migrant encounters. We are continually evaluating operations and working with partner governments to address changes in migration flows throughout the hemisphere.”
Sister Norma Pimentel runs Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, where her shelters for families have the capacity to hold 2,000 migrants at a time. She said she is now holding over 500 every day but has seen the numbers grow recently.
She said many of the families who come to her shelter are there because they can no longer wait in the “merciless heat” and live under the threat of violence in Mexico. Although the Biden administration has expanded migrants' ability to schedule appointments for asylum interviews, many have grown frustrated waiting over a month for appointments, Pimentel said.
“They had to struggle with extreme heat and have been unable to get appointments,” Pimentel said. “So they are discouraged. They feel they have to do something different, so they are attempting to go through areas where they see other people entering.”
Just this week, Pimentel said, her shelter staff delivered a baby when it arrived before the mother, a Haitian migrant, could get to the hospital.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, said families who previously had incentives to break up and send their children unaccompanied under Title 42 now have incentives to cross together.
Title 42 turned back many families at the border but gave exceptions to children crossing without parents.
“There is less incentive or reason for a family to send their child alone,” Vignarajah said. “And we have seen encounters of unaccompanied children go down every month since April.”