U.S. authorities caught more than 171,000 migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico in March, according to preliminary data shared with Reuters, the highest monthly total in two decades and the latest sign of the mounting humanitarian challenge confronting President Joe Biden.
It was the highest monthly total since 2006, according to The Washington Post. The massive increase — up from 78,442 in January — has shaken the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
The total includes about 19,000 unaccompanied migrant children and 53,000 family members traveling together, the preliminary figures show. Single adults made up roughly 99,000 of the total.
The Biden administration is struggling to find housing for unaccompanied children who have been backed up in crowded border stations and processing centers for days. The shelter system that houses the children has been overwhelmed and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has scrambled in recent weeks to open emergency shelters, including sites in conventions centers in Dallas and San Diego.
People are sneaking into the country without being identified or taken into custody due to border agents being overwhelmed, three U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials told the Houston Chronicle.
While the scenario of migrants evading CBP officials has occurred in the past, the number of so-called "got aways" in recent weeks is the highest in recent memory, two of the officials said.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to release the data.
A "got away" is defined as an individual who is not apprehended or turned back to Mexico, and no longer is being pursued actively by Border Patrol.
Got aways often include previous deportees, some with serious criminal records, who pay smugglers to help them evade capture.
CBP has improved its ability to detect illegal crossings in real time after spending more than $1 billion on surveillance technology and camera during the past two decades. Apprehending individuals is another matter, though, especially when migration levels soar.
The present crisis forces border agents to spend significant time transporting and processing families and unaccompanied minors, who generally do not attempt to avoid capture. They often turn themselves in and seek humanitarian refuge in the U.S.
Department of Homeland Security officials said they expect border crossings to leap to a 20-year high in 2021.
Projections had indicated more than 160,000 migrants would be taken into custody in March. That total includes a record of more than 18,000 unaccompanied teenagers and children.
A CBP spokesperson did not respond to the Chronicle’s request for comment.
During a February podcast, Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz said the agency had recorded 1,000 got aways on a single day, adding that was an unusually high number. The figure since has become a new norm, however.
As for single adults apprehended by Border Patrol in March, the most recent data said the number exceeded 90,000.
CBP returned most of those adults to Mexico using the Title 42 public health order in place since March 2020. Although that order has allowed U.S. authorities to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection inside immigration jails, it also has resulted in adults trying to sneak in continually until they succeed.
Two agents in Arizona said the number of got aways has been high in that state, where smaller groups of individuals have hiked through remote areas that would require time-consuming interdictions. Some of those migrants have carried drugs.
One agent said it appeared smuggling organizations were sending "small groups of two, three or four, and that quickly occupies all the agents available to go after them."
"There are maybe 20 groups a day that are observed, but there's nobody to try to go after them," the agent said. "They just keep walking until they're out of sight."
Groups of families and children are prioritized by Border Patrol, which then transfers the migrants to agency stations. Those facilities can be two hours or more from remote border areas.
CBP officials said groups of 100 or more family members and unaccompanied minors are arriving in greater numbers, with their crossings usually coordinated by Mexican criminal organizations that charge transit fees or tolls to anyone crossing territory under their control.
Smugglers will send large groups as a diversion to tie up border agents in one area, while narcotics or single adults are moved at other locations, the officials said.
Material from Reuters was used in this story.
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