Migrant Border Arrests in July Surge to Highest Level in 21 Years

Migrant Border Arrests in July Surge to Highest Level in 21 Years

Nearly 200,000 people were arrested as tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors crossed the border

The Border Patrol made about 200,000 arrests at the southern border in July, marking the busiest month at the border in 21 years and a 12% increase over the previous month, according to new figures released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Thursday.

The number marks a departure from seasonal trends that would typically see fewer migrants attempting the dangerous journey at the peak of the summer heat.

Nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border in July—almost equal to the record set this March. And 76,000 parents and children crossed the border together as families, the second-highest total ever and a significant jump from June.

The CBP data only includes the number of arrests and doesn’t account for people who made it across the border without being apprehended—typically single adults in search of work who don’t intend to ask for asylum.

The past six months mark the longest period in recent history that monthly crossings have remained near or above 100,000, an unrelenting pace that has placed a heavy strain on the immigration system and posed one of the largest political challenges for the Biden administration so far.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called July’s numbers “unprecedented” during a press conference in Texas on Thursday. He said the administration’s plan to address the rise includes addressing the root causes of migration, creating legal pathways for migrants to enter the U.S., improving security and processing at the border and taking actions against smugglers.

“We have a plan. We are executing our plan, and that takes time,” Mr. Mayorkas said.

Of the people apprehended, 47% were immediately sent back to Mexico under the health-emergency policy known as Title 42, though just 13% of migrants traveling as families were turned back.

The high volume of illegal border crossings is a result of several factors, including the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic felt across Latin America, pent-up demand after years of restrictive Trump administration policies and a perception that President Biden would be more welcoming to those looking to migrate. More recently, CBP officials have warned in internal meetings that the improving economy in the U.S. and rising vaccination rates will continue to attract more attempted illegal entries so long as there continue to be unfilled jobs in the U.S.

“One of the things we have seen in some of our intelligence and information is that because the Covid situation hasn’t improved in some of the Central American countries, you’re starting to see families make the conscious decision to send their children north,” said Raul Ortiz, the deputy chief of the Border Patrol who is set to take over the agency’s top job, in an interview Wednesday.

The number has also been driven up by an unusually high level of migrants crossing the border multiple times to attempt to evade capture; many of these migrants are adult men from Mexico in search of work. Officials have said that Title 42, which allows agents to rapidly return most migrants to Mexico without allowing them to seek asylum, has inadvertently driven up crossings because migrants don’t face consequences for illegal entry under the policy.

Mr. Mayorkas said 27% of migrants crossing the border in July had made at least one attempt in the previous year, and border officials have said some migrants are trying to enter as many as six or seven times in a row.

The challenge for the Biden administration is that, unlike his predecessors who saw large waves of either single adults from Mexico or families and children seeking asylum from Central America, his administration is seeing large numbers of both populations—in the middle of a pandemic.

So many families have been arriving each day that Border Patrol agents sometimes release them with instructions to check in at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, rather than letting them go with a specific court date. The government also cooperates with border cities and local nonprofits to test migrants for Covid-19 and quarantine them if necessary. But amid the uptick, some shelters, including the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, have been getting full.

The city of McAllen, running out of hotel rooms to quarantine migrants who had tested positive for Covid-19, this week began sheltering about 1,000 Covid-positive migrants under an air-conditioned tent in a park along the border.

In response, the Department of Homeland Security has stepped up its enforcement tactics, agency officials said. Immigration agents have begun flying migrants being expelled under Title 42 into southern Mexico rather than immediately turning them around at the border, a tactic to discourage repeat crossings. Other migrants subject to Title 42 have been flown to different parts of the border—such as from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso—and sent back to Mexican cities willing to accept them.

Since Mexico won’t accept most families back under Title 42, DHS has also begun using a fast-track deportation process known as expedited removal to fly some families back to Central America without an immigration hearing.

Asked if those flights complied with U.S. asylum laws, Mr. Mayorkas said Thursday: “It is in the lawful exercise of that public-health authority that we are executing those expulsion flights in the service of the public health, not only of the American public, but of the migrants themselves.”

Immigration authorities said they believe that if they begin to deter migrant families from coming to the border that could slow the number of unaccompanied children as well—since those children most often make the journey north with adult relatives, family friends or other adults traveling with their children who have hired the same smuggler.

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