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Southwest border crossings on pace for highest levels in 20 years, Biden admin says

Border agents are encountering 565 unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border on average per day, up from 313 children per day last month.
Migrants from Central America stand near the Paso del Norte international border bridge.
Migrants from Central America stand near the Paso del Norte international border bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after being deported from the United States on March 11.Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday the U.S. is expected to reach the highest number of people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in two decades.

“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children," Mayorkas said in a statement addressing what he described as a “difficult” situation at the border.

“Our goal is a safe, legal and orderly immigration system that is based on our bedrock priorities: to keep our borders secure, address the plight of children as the law requires, and enable families to be together,” he said.

As of Sunday, Customs and Border Protection was encountering 565 unaccompanied children crossing the border on average per day, according to new data obtained by NBC News, up from an average of 313 children per day last month.

The surge has created a backlog in Border Patrol stations, with over 4,200 children in custody and 2,943 of those children being held over the 72-hour legal limit. The new figures are a record high, topping last week, when there were roughly 3,000 children in Border Patrol custody, 1,400 of whom were being held over the 72-hour limit.

FEMA is quickly building “decompression centers” in Dallas and Midland, Texas to allow Health and Human Services, the agency equipped to care for children before they are placed with sponsors, to take more children out of border patrol custody.

Mayorkas explained that the majority of people apprehended at the southwest border are single adults, and they are “currently being expelled under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's authority to manage the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Single adults from Mexico, and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “are swiftly expelled to Mexico,” he said. Similarly, families apprehended at the border who came from Mexico or those other countries are being expelled to Mexico “unless Mexico does not have the capacity to receive the families,” he said.

“Mexico’s limited capacity has strained our resources, including in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas," he said. "When Mexico’s capacity is reached, we process the families and place them in immigration proceedings here in the United States.”

Mayorkas said the U.S. is encountering many children at the southwest border each day who are not accompanied by a parent or a legal guardian. Part of the problem, he said, is that the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t have the capacity to take in the current number of children they’re encountering.

Republicans have accused the current administration of creating a “crisis” at the border, saying President Joe Biden’s relaxing of some immigration policies have incentivized people to try to cross into the U.S. illegally.

When asked on Tuesday, Biden told reporters that he did not have any plans to visit the southern border at the moment.

In an interview with ABC News, Biden was asked if he needed to directly tell migrants not to make their way to the border.

"Yes. I can say quite clearly don’t come,” Biden said in a clip released of the interview set to air on Wednesday morning. “We’re in the process of getting set up,” he said, “don’t leave your town or city or community.”

Mayorkas blamed the surge at the border on poverty, high levels of violence and corruption in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries. He also attributed the high numbers to the Trump administration, which he said “completely dismantled the asylum system.”

“The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers,” he said, adding the Biden administration has had to rebuild the system.

Mayorkas said the U.S. is building new facilities to increase its capacity, working with Mexico to receive expelled families, and developing a more formal refugee program.

“We are creating joint processing centers so that children can be placed in HHS care immediately after Border Patrol encounters them," he said. "We are also identifying and equipping additional facilities for HHS to shelter unaccompanied children until they are placed with family or sponsors. These are short-term solutions to address the surge of unaccompanied children."

FEMA is setting up two facilities in Texas to handle the influx of unaccompanied minors. One, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, will hold up to 3,000 unaccompanied teenage migrant boys, two U.S. officials told NBC News. The other will be a camp in Midland. HHS will run both sites. Children would arrive at the centers from border processing facilities and then be transferred to relatives or other sponsors.

"FEMA is supporting the Department of Health and Human Services’ response to the arrival of unaccompanied children at the southwest border" and is "actively engaged with HHS to quickly expand capacity for safe and appropriate shelter, and to provide food, water and basic medical care," a DHS spokesperson said.

The Associated Press first reported the conversion of the Dallas convention center to help alleviate the overcrowding at the border processing facilities.

Jacob Soboroff and Lauren Egan contributed.