Written by Caitlin Dickerson
For the fourth time in five months, the number of migrant families crossing the southwest border has broken records, border enforcement authorities said Tuesday, warning that government facilities are full and agents are overwhelmed.
More than 76,000 migrants crossed the border without authorization in February, more than double the levels from the same period last year and approaching the largest numbers seen in any February in the last 12 years.
“The system is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point,” Kevin K. McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told reporters in announcing the new data.
Diverted by new restrictions at many of the leading ports of entry, migrant families, mainly from Central America, continue to arrive in ever-larger groups in remote parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. At least 70 such groups of 100 or more people have turned themselves in at Border Patrol stations that typically are staffed by only a handful of agents, often hours away from civilization. By comparison, only 13 such groups arrived in the last fiscal year, and two in the year before.
More than 90 percent of the new arrivals were from Guatemala, officials said, with a significant change in the dynamics of the migration: While Central American migrants once took weeks to journey through Mexico to the United States, many Guatemalan families are now boarding buses and reaching the southwest border in as little as four to seven days “on a very consistent basis,” McAleenan said.
McAleenan also declared sweeping changes to the agency’s procedures for guaranteeing adequate medical care for migrants — an overhaul brought on by the deaths of two migrant children in the agency’s custody in December. The measures, which include comprehensive health screenings for all migrant children and a new processing center in El Paso, Texas, that would help provide better shelter and medical care for migrant families, were developed with advice from outside medical experts and pediatricians, the commissioner said. They are an attempt to fix years of health care inadequacies that have left many at risk.
The agency will also expand medical contracts to place health care practitioners — largely registered nurses and nurse practitioners — in “high-risk” and high-traffic locations along the border. It will also dedicate more money for translation services to meet increasing demand from Central Americans, many of whom speak indigenous dialects and may not be able to communicate their needs in English or Spanish.
“These solutions are temporary, and this situation is not sustainable,” McAleenan said. “This is clearly both a border security and a humanitarian crisis.”
The high number of families crossing the border suggest that President Donald Trump’s policies aimed at deterring asylum-seekers are not having their intended effect. Up to 2,000 migrants who traveled in a caravan from Central America last year and faced lengthy delays in Tijuana appeared to have given up their cause as of last month after being discouraged by months of delays at the border. But the families following behind them seem only to have adjusted their routes rather than turn back. Indeed, they are traveling in even larger numbers than before.
Beginning for the first time in October, members of families have come to outpace apprehensions of individual adult migrants. McAleenan said authorities believe this is a result of smugglers having effectively communicated across Central America that adults who travel with children will be allowed to enter and stay in the United States.
“Crossing with a child is a guarantee of a speedy release and an indefinite release into the United States,” McAleenan said.
Brian Hastings, the agency’s chief of law enforcement operations, said that since April 2018, border agents had detected nearly 2,400 cases in which migrants had falsely claimed to be related when they were not, or untruthfully claimed to be younger than 18.
The throngs of new families are also affecting communities on the US side of the border. In El Paso, for example, which has seen a 434 percent increase in apprehensions during the current fiscal year, a volunteer network that temporarily houses the migrants after they are released from custody has had to expand to 20 facilities, compared with only three during the same period last year. Migrants are now being housed in churches, a converted nursing home and about 125 hotel rooms that are being paid for with donations.
“We had never seen these kinds of numbers,” said Ruben Garcia, director of the organization, called Annunciation House. He said that during one week in February, immigration authorities had released more than 3,600 migrants to his organization, the highest number in any single week since the group’s founding in 1978.
For the most part, Garcia said that his staff and volunteer workers had been able to keep up with the surge, often making frantic calls to churches to request access to more space for housing families on short notice. But sometimes their best efforts were upended, he said, including on one day last week, when authorities dropped off 150 more migrants than originally planned.
“We just didn’t have the space,” Garcia said.
Border Patrol officials said that the biggest “pull factors” encouraging migrant families to make their way to the United States were federal laws and court settlements that prohibit authorities from deporting Central Americans without lengthy processing, and from detaining migrant families for more than 20 days, after which they must be released into the country while they await immigration court proceedings. Others at the agency pointed to severe poverty and food insecurity in the western highlands of Guatemala, where many of the families are from, as a primary motivation.
As of Sunday, 268,044 migrants had been apprehended along the southwest border since the fiscal year began in October, a 97 percent increase from the previous year, according to government figures.
The larger numbers and the surge into more remote areas of the border have drawn new attention to long-standing problems with medical services provided by Customs and Border Protection. Migrant families, in particular, tend to arrive in urgent need of medical attention, the agency said, which has strained resources and drawn agents away from their law enforcement duties.
Last year, the agency referred 12,000 border crossers to emergency rooms for care, each one requiring an agent to wait with them at the hospital and ensure they were immediately returned to federal custody upon release. The rates of hospital referrals are increasing, the agency said, with about 145 agents per day currently acting as hospital escorts. Meanwhile, cocaine seizures for the current fiscal year have already exceeded the previous one, and methamphetamine seizures have also increased, according to the agency, a situation that also is demanding staff resources.
Historically, many migrant families have been released from custody almost immediately upon crossing the border because the capacity of facilities outfitted to house parents with children is much smaller than the number of people traveling as families. Immigration authorities have enough space to detain about 3,000 members of migrant families; more than 28,000 crossed the border in January.
Recently, though, the agency has also begun releasing single adults into the country because of backups that now extend to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities across the country, where adult detainees are traditionally held until their immigration court cases are resolved.
More than 50,000 adults are currently detained in ICE custody, the highest number ever, which has in turn begun to tax government lawyers, who are tasked with prosecuting their deportation cases, according to agency officials.
Yet the latest projections, based on intelligence gathered in Central America as well as patterns from previous years, suggest that the numbers of families traveling to the United States may continue to increase in the coming months.
Volunteer groups are trying to prepare for even greater numbers, and some of them are having to get creative.
In downtown Tucson, Arizona, a 50-room monastery, occupied by Benedictine nuns for 80 years, has been offered up by a local land developer as a temporary shelter to house migrants until July. Newly arrived migrants are checking in at the rate of about 100 a day, replacing families who secure bus tickets to join friends or relatives elsewhere in the country after staying one or two nights.
“I can’t imagine how we would manage without the monastery,” said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations at Catholic Community Services, which is operating the shelter.