The number of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in March was the most in at least 15 years, as agents for U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended nearly 172,000 people, according to Biden administration officials.
This included nearly 19,000 children and teenagers traveling without a parent — double the levels from February and the most ever in a single month.
The overall surge in March — a 71% spike over February's figures — illustrates the scope of the ongoing challenge President Biden faces as he seeks to enforce the border while overhauling the nation's asylum rules.
Administration officials said CPB turns adult migrants back 60% of the time because of Title 42, the health order implemented by the Trump administration aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. And nearly 30% of the migrants had been previously turned back because of Title 42.
"The levels of flows pose a challenge to Border Patrol, but the high level of recidivism means that we can't look at those flows as individual people. It's often the same people coming back through," an official told reporters.
The administration has been struggling to handle the influx of children, who are not being turned away at the border. Facilities run by CBP are not designed to house children and teens. In March, there was progress, officials said. By the end of the month, an average of 507 children a day were being transferred out of CBP facilities, up from 276 per day a month earlier.
"We are moving in the right direction, but we know we know we have a lot of work ahead," the official said, noting the administration has increased the number of emergency shelter beds.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Federal statistics now show the highest number of migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in 15 years. This is a monthly tally from the Biden administration. One hundred seventy-two thousand people were apprehended trying to cross the border in a single month. And that includes a record number of children and teenagers traveling without a parent - the most ever in a single month, in fact. And we'll talk these numbers through with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, good morning.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Wow, 172,000 people apprehended at the border. What does that mean?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, so those are the people who came into contact with Border Patrol agents. Obviously, there are people who make it across illegally who do not come into contact with law enforcement. But these are the apprehension numbers, and they're used as a marker to show specifically how much illegal immigration there is.
And that 172,000 number also includes nearly 19,000 children and teenagers who were traveling without a parent. That was the most ever in a single month. And it really just shows the scope of this challenge for President Biden as he seeks to enforce the border while also implementing a more humane policy that includes overhauling the nation's asylum system.
You know, the Biden administration is defending their response. They're emphasizing that the border is not open. Officials told us or some of us reporters that more than 60% of those apprehended are being turned back. They're being turned back because of Title 42. That's the health order implemented by the Trump administration aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. And they say a large number, also - nearly 30% - were migrants who had previously been turned back, and they are trying again. And they basically make the case that that skews numbers a bit.
INSKEEP: So there's so much to follow up on here. First, you mentioned that thing about the border not being open. This is a common refrain of the president's critics - that there are open borders. One hundred seventy-two thousand people apprehended in a month - that's obviously a lie. It's a lie every single time you're ever told there are open borders - a total lie.
But then there's the matter of why people are coming in the time of this new president. The president's own words have been blamed for some of the people being attracted to the United States. What does the administration say is the reason so many people are coming?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, they say there are a few factors. They note the influx has been rising since April of last year, well before President Biden was elected. They cite long-standing factors such as poverty and food insecurity in Central America. They also note that there have been some new factors, including two recent hurricanes. And, of course, there has been widespread unemployment due to the pandemic.
Now, they didn't talk about this today, but the administration has previously acknowledged some of their own role here, you know, citing the pent-up demand for a more humane policy. That would impact some of the timing of this influx but not be the driver of migration, forcing people to leave their countries. But, you know, officials told us reporters that they have made significant progress, you know, citing these rules that they've been doing, and they caution that this is not going to be fixed overnight.
INSKEEP: Very briefly, what is the administration going to do with 19,000 more unaccompanied minors who came across in a single month?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, this has been a major challenge for Biden. There were - you know, they have clearly made a much stronger approach with adults than with children. But, you know, unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration is not turning away children at the border. And they're going to do everything they can to take care of them.
INSKEEP: Franco, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
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