The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 66,000 migrants at the Southern border in February, the highest total for a single month in almost a decade.
The majority of those arrested were migrant families or children traveling alone or without a parent, according to figures released Tuesday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Many of the migrants say they're fleeing criminal gangs and poverty in Central America to seek asylum in the United States.
"This is clearly both a border security and humanitarian crisis," said CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan at a press briefing.
Between October and last week, Border Patrol agents have picked up more than 260,000 people — a 90 percent jump over the same period a year ago.
"The entire system right now is at full capacity. Actually, it's overwhelmed," said Manuel Padilla, a veteran Border Patrol agent who's now director of Joint Task Force-West in San Antonio, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Even with the recent climb, illegal border crossings are still well below historical highs. But the makeup of the migrant population has changed dramatically from 20 years ago, when it was mostly single men from Mexico. Border Patrol officials say their infrastructure wasn't designed for the flood of migrant families and children arriving now.
"Everything is maxed out and it's causing a lot of issues, because the agents are being assigned to areas that are not border security related," Padilla said, like providing food and medical care for the families and children in their custody.
Since last year, Border Patrol agents say, they have routinely encountered large groups of a hundred or more migrants at the border, many of them arriving by bus from Guatemala. According to immigration authorities, the passengers consist almost entirely of families and children who are looking for Border Patrol agents to turn themselves in to. Agents say they've encountered 70 large groups since last year.
That leaves agents scrambling to transport and process the migrants, Padilla said, and allows drug traffickers to take advantage of the distraction.
Humanitarian groups near the border say the surge of migrant families is straining their resources too.
"It takes an immense effort to do this," said Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, a nonprofit organization in El Paso, Texas, that provides shelter, food and medical care to migrants after they're released from government custody.
Most migrants spend just a few days in El Paso, Garcia said, before joining friends or relatives elsewhere in the country, where they'll wait for their day in immigration court.
President Trump has decried the surge of people crossing the border illegally from Mexico as "an invasion" — and a chief reason that the U.S. needs to extend its border barriers.
But Padilla, the Border Patrol veteran, believes that a wall alone will not stop these migrants.
Many of the migrants are crossing in areas that already have border fencing. And they're not trying to evade the Border Patrol, Padilla said. In fact, these asylum-seekers are trying to turn themselves in as soon as they set foot on U.S. soil.
"So the wall is not going to do anything with this population," Padilla said. "This requires a legislative fix."
Immigration hard-liners say the U.S. needs to close what they call "loopholes" in the law that allow Central American migrants to avoid quick deportation and that prevent immigration authorities from detaining families for long periods of time.
Migrant advocates counter that the Trump administration has made the problem at the Southern border worse by allowing just a few migrant families a day to cross at legal ports of entry. They believe that this is driving many migrants to cross illegally in big groups and in remote stretches of the border.
"They're very vulnerable people," said Garcia at Annunciation House. "Let's strive not to lose or let go of our history as a people of immigrants, who are profoundly committed to human rights."
Humanitarian groups and immigration authorities are bracing for even more migrants in the months ahead. The number of people crossing the border illegally typically crests in the spring, as temperatures warm.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The number of migrants apprehended after illegally crossing the southern border surged last month to the highest total in nearly a decade. That's according to numbers released today by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Officials say they are not prepared for this border security and humanitarian crisis. President Trump has already declared a national emergency to free up more money for a border wall, but critics say he's exaggerating the threat to the country. Joel Rose covers immigration for NPR. He joins us on the line now.
Hey there, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So give us the numbers for February. How many migrants were apprehended last month?
ROSE: More than 66,000 migrants who crossed the border illegally, either turned themselves in or were caught by the Border Patrol. And by my count, that is the biggest monthly total since 2009. Most of those migrants are family members and children from Central America. Many of them are seeking asylum in the U.S. It's the fourth time in five months that officials say they've seen a record number of families crossing the border.
CORNISH: What is Border Patrol saying about what's happening and about how they're handling it?
ROSE: Immigration officials say they are seeing a new phenomenon in the last year or so, these large groups of more than a hundred people turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents all at once. Many of them are arriving together in busloads who are dropped off at remote, rugged parts of the border. And then Border Patrol agents have to go out and process them in the field; you know, transport them back to sector - to substations or back to their sector headquarter; give them food and medical care. And the Border Patrol says it just doesn't have the resources to deal with all these families. Here is U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan today.
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KEVIN MCALEENAN: Remote locations of the United States border are not safe places to cross, and they are not places to seek medical care. The system is well beyond capacity and remains at a breaking point.
ROSE: McAleenan says the Border Patrol has stepped up medical care for migrant children after two youngsters died in CBP custody in December. Border Patrol agents say they're doing the best they can. But they find this situation frustrating because it's taking them away from their mission of securing the border. And they say, in a handful of cases, smugglers have used these big groups as a distraction to smuggle in contraband while Border Patrol agents are busy caring for these migrants.
CORNISH: What's being said about why we're seeing this particular spike? Why now?
ROSE: Many of these migrants are fleeing countries that are in turmoil - Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - fleeing from gang violence and extreme poverty. NPR interviewed Ruben Garcia, who runs Annunciation House. It is a nonprofit in El Paso, Texas, that cares for migrants after they're released from government custody. And Garcia says he recently talked to a father and son who felt they had no choice but to leave their home in Guatemala and make the trip to the U.S.
RUBEN GARCIA: The boy, who was 17 years of age, he couldn't stop crying because he did not want to be here. He kept talking about his mom and that he wanted to be with his mom. But he kept saying it - there's just no choice; we have no choice.
ROSE: Garcia says his organization has seen several big surges of migrant families and children before over the past few years. But he says this one is the biggest. And he says each week - he's seen more than 3,000 migrants last month who were released into El Paso to wait for their day in immigration court. And groups like his are struggling to keep up, too.
CORNISH: Joel, do you think these numbers might affect the debate in Washington?
ROSE: You may be surprised to hear that this is not likely to settle the debate. Some immigration hard-liners would say that it proves what President Trump has been saying - that there is a national emergency, that we need money for a border wall and we need new limits on who can get asylum here. But immigrant rights advocates say hold on; this is not an invasion. Illegal immigration is still way below what it was a generation ago. They would argue that this is a humanitarian crisis and that it needs a humanitarian solution.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks for your reporting.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.