Nick Miroff, Washington Post, April 2, 2021
Preliminary enforcement data for March confirms what border officials have been saying for weeks: The number of migrants crossing into the United States has skyrocketed to the highest levels in at least 15 years, and record numbers of teenagers and children arriving without parents have overwhelmed the government’s ability to care for them.
Though President Biden and his top officials have refused to acknowledge it is a crisis, the latest data shows the new administration under extraordinary strain.
U.S. agents took more than 171,000 migrants into custody last month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures that contradict Biden’s claims that his administration is facing an influx no different from previous years. The rapid increase in border arrests and detentions — which has more than doubled since January — underscores the magnitude of the challenge facing an administration that has promised more-humane and more-welcoming immigration policies.
Biden officials now find themselves racing to add thousands of emergency shelter beds to alleviate dangerous overcrowding inside tent enclosures, where Central American teens and children are being held for longer than legal limits and sleeping shoulder to shoulder under foil blankets for days on end.
Last month, CBP took in more than 18,800 unaccompanied minors, a 99 percent increase from February and a figure far above the previous one-month high of 11,861 in May 2019. The jump in the number of migrants arriving as part of family groups was even steeper last month, soaring to more than 53,000, up from 19,246 in February and 7,294 in January, the preliminary figures show.
A current CBP official and a former CBP official who have both seen the preliminary March figures confirmed their accuracy.
Asked by reporters about the increasing number of migrants arriving at the border, Biden said during his first news conference last week that his administration was facing the same challenge previous administrations have confronted.
“The truth of the matter is nothing has changed,” Biden said. “It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year.”
The enforcement statistics from March belie that claim. The precipitous increase in crossings during the first two months of Biden’s term has a more vertical growth curve than any comparable span over the past two decades. The biggest two-month increase during the last big surge in 2019 was about 45,000 in raw numbers. Between January (78,442) and March 2021 (171,000) it was more than 90,000.
Biden took office promising a more welcoming approach to immigrants and a reversal of his predecessor’s hard-line policies. His administration announced a 100-day deportation moratorium, canceled controversial Trump policies restricting asylum and proposed a major immigration bill offering millions a path to citizenship, among other measures cheered by supporters.
His administration also said it would not use the Title 42 emergency health order, put in place at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, to return unaccompanied Central American minors to their home countries, allowing them to instead seek humanitarian protection under the law.
In recent weeks, border agents have struggled with the overwhelming number of unaccompanied teenagers and children in their care, many held in cramped detention conditions for far longer than legal limits while they wait for bed space to open at emergency shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. CBP announced Friday the opening of a new 90,000-square-foot tent facility near Eagle Pass, Tex., to help the agency cope with the volume of families and children in its care. A similar influx site is also under consideration in Arizona.
The March data also shows the scope of the challenge faced by patrol agents in the field who are trying to capture single adults crossing at levels not seen in years. Last month CBP detained more than 99,000 single adults, up from 71,598 in February.