WASHINGTON — U.S. authorities encountered nearly double the number of children traveling alone across the Mexican border on Monday than on an average day last month, an official said Tuesday, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas conceded the surge was a challenge.
The Border Patrol came across 561 unaccompanied children at the border on Monday, including 280 in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the official said, offering a snapshot of how quickly events at the border have changed during the first two months of Joe Biden's presidency. By comparison, it encountered a daily average of 332 unaccompanied children in February, which itself was a 60% jump from January. The peak was 370 during a Trump-era surge in May 2019.
The U.S. official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that were not intended for public disclosure, said the Health and Human Services Department was moving to open two additional facilities to process children traveling alone — one for 800 children at Moffett Federal Airfield near San Francisco and another in Pecos, Texas. It is also looking to expand a facility in Donna, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, to hold 2,000 people.
The Dallas Convention Center is scheduled to begin holding children as early as Wednesday with plans to accommodate up to 3,000. Another makeshift holding center in Midland, Texas, that opened last weekend for 700 children had 485 on Monday.
Faced with criticism from all sides. Mayorkas said the situation was under control as he defended the administration's policy of allowing children crossing by themselves to remain in the country
"They are vulnerable children and we have ended the prior administration's practice of expelling them," Mayorkas said in his most detailed statement yet on a situation at the border that he characterized as "difficult" but not the crisis that critics have portrayed. He again rejected a Trump-era policy of sending them immediately back to Mexico or other countries.
In the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector, 1,856 of the roughly 2,500 children in custody on Monday were being held longer than the 72-hour limit dictated by agency policy, the U.S. official said, which helps explain why the administration has quickly moved into high gear for more space.
The increasing number of migrants attempting to cross the border, which is at the highest level since 2019 and on pace to hit a 20-year peak, has become an early test for Biden as he seeks to break from his immediate predecessor, President Donald Trump, who waged a broad effort to significantly curtail both legal and illegal immigration.
Republicans in Congress have claimed that Biden's support for immigration legislation and decision to allow people to make legal asylum claims has become a magnet for migrants, but Mayorkas noted that there have been surges in the past, even under Trump.
Some progressive Democrats and others, meanwhile, have assailed the Biden administration for holding migrant children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facilities longer than the allowed 72 hours as it struggles to find space in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
On Monday, the Border Patrol encountered about 4,700 people crossing the border illegally from Mexico, including 1,575 in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, the official said. That's up from a daily average of nearly 3,500 across the border in February and higher than about 4,300 during the peak of the Trump surge in 2019.
The overall increase is blamed on a number of factors, including the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic in Central America and two hurricanes in the region. U.S. officials have also conceded that smugglers have likely encouraged people to try to cross under the new administration.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led a delegation of a dozen Republican lawmakers on Monday to the border in Texas and blamed the Biden administration for driving an increase in migrants by actions that include supporting legislation in Congress that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented people now in the country and halting border wall construction.
"The sad part about all of this is it didn't have to happen. This crisis was created by the presidential policies of this new administration," McCarthy said.
Trump confronted a similar surge in 2019 even as he rushed to expand the border wall system along the border and forced people seeking asylum to do so in Central America or remain in Mexico. A year earlier he forcibly separated migrant children from their families as part of a zero-tolerance campaign that became one of the most significant political challenges of his administration.
After dropping during the start of the pandemic, the number of migrants caught while crossing the border began to rise in April. Some of the increase is due to people who are repeatedly caught after being expelled under the public health order.
The total number of people encountered by CBP rose about 28% from January to February to just over 100,000, most of whom were single adults. The last time the number was that high was in June 2019.
Migrants who are under 18 years old are being allowed to remain in the country while the government decides whether they have a legal claim to residency, either under asylum law or for some other reason.
The U.S. is continuing to expel most single adults and families either to Mexico or to their home countries. Mayorkas said exceptions are being made for adults with "certain acute vulnerabilities" that he did not specify or for families when Mexican authorities don't have capacity in shelters to accept them.
Mayorkas noted that 80% of the children, most of whom are from the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America, have relatives in the U.S. and 40% have a parent.
The Biden administration last week ended a Trump administration policy that made relatives reluctant to contact HHS to retrieve children for fear of being deported themselves.
It has enlisted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up new temporary facilities to house migrant children in Texas and Arizona. It is also working with HHS to expand shelter capacity and backing aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to try to stem the flow of migrants at the source.
Mayorkas took swipes at the previous administration for dismantling an asylum system that he said would have enabled a more "orderly" immigration system, for cutting aid to Central America and failing to vaccinate Border Patrol agents.
"The situation we are currently facing at the Southwest border is a difficult one," Mayorkas said. "We are tackling it."