President Biden claimed in his first press conference since taking office on Thursday that “nothing has changed” from previous influxes of migrants and unaccompanied children at the border.
“It happens every single year,” he said, pushing back on questions about whether his own policies had contributed to the situation on the border.
“During the winter months of January, February and March, the number of people coming to the border increases significantly,” he said. “It happens every year.”
The Biden government is grappling with growing numbers of migrants, especially children who arrive at the border without their parents.
It’s true, as Biden notes, that the numbers often go up in the first few months of the year when temperatures start to warm. However, the number of children arriving today without their parents is significantly higher than at the same time in 2019 and 2020.
In fact, the number of unaccompanied children arrested by border police was higher in February than in February. This emerges from data shared with NPR by the impartial Migration Policy Institute.
Authorities met 9,297 unparented children in February, a 30% increase from 2019 during the last large unaccompanied inflow.
While it’s still below the highs of 11,000 unaccompanied minors arriving in May 2019 and over 10,000 in June 2014, experts and administrators expect those records to be broken this year.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last week that US agents are well on their way to intercepting more migrants at the southwest border in 2021 than in the past two decades.
The reasons for the influx of migrants from Central America are large and complex. They are also very personal to any family who choose to leave their home.
Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Institute for Migration Policy, says it’s a mix of long-standing factors like poverty and corruption, as well as new factors like two recent hurricanes and widespread unemployment due to the pandemic.
“And then of course we have a new administration in the US that has promised to treat migrants in a more humane way,” said Bolter. “And that is something that is not lost for migrants. And it is certainly not something that is lost for smugglers, who are likely to exaggerate any change in US policy to increase their business and attract migrants to join them to come to the border with Mexico. “
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have arrested an average of 5,000 undocumented immigrants per day in the past 30 days, including about 500 unaccompanied children, according to a senior Border Protection official who spoke to reporters Friday.
The official said the influx was “much different” than in previous years, citing the large number of unaccompanied children and families traveling.
By Wednesday, more than 5,000 unaccompanied children and young people with a migrant background were stuck in border guards waiting for beds in more suitable accommodation for children. This is based on data from the Department of Homeland Security viewed by NPR.
The Border Patrol official told reporters Friday that agents are trying to get the children out of camps and prison-like cells as soon as possible. There is a bottleneck, however, as the government cannot open any children’s homes run by the Department of Health and Human Services quickly enough to accommodate anyone who crosses.
“Unfortunately, we may have more than 9,000 people in custody on any given day, which certainly drains our resources,” the official said.
The Biden administration is working with other agencies to find more sleeping space. They use places like the San Diego Convention Center to take in unaccompanied minors so they don’t sleep in cells on the border.
The challenges in Central America – and on the border – have become cyclical.
As under previous presidents, the Biden administration was unwilling to accommodate so many arriving children.
But Bolter wonders if this is some kind of new “crisis”. She says this is part of the same flow of migrants that the United States has seen over the past decade.
As of 2012, most of the fears on the southwest border were young Mexican men finding work in the United States. Two years later, most of the cases that came across the southwest border were from Central America and were a mix of people, families, and unaccompanied children.
“It’s really all part of the same river,” said Bolter. “This is something – these streams of Central American children and families – that the administrations of both parties are struggling with how to deal with.”
The Biden government also has long-term plans to address these issues more directly in Central America. This includes developing legal ways to seek asylum so that migrants do not feel they have to choose illegal routes. And Biden has just sent three top officials to Mexico and Guatemala to tackle the root causes of migration. He’s also just appointed Vice President Harris to lead it.
Juan Gonzalez, the senior director of the National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere, was part of that team.
He told Steve Inskeep, of NPR Friday, that the government wants to help countries in the region create the right environment for international investment that promotes economic prosperity, but also has ways to encourage money launderers and other corrupt officials to behave better .
“So that’s a carrot,” he said. “On sticks, during the campaign, and we are actually working to make that happen now under the leadership of the Vice-President, the President committed himself to developing a regional anti-corruption task force. There are a lot of things the United States is doing and doing its partners can impose sanctions, draw visas, freeze the assets of people involved in money laundering. “
NPR’s John Burnett contributed to this story.