The number of people caught crossing illegally into the U.S. along the southwest border in February was the most in any month in about a decade.
More than 66,000 people were apprehended by Border Patrol last month, according to Customs and Border Protection data, the most since March 2009 when agents caught over 67,000. More than 8,700 of those caught crossing illegally in February — about 13 percent of apprehensions — were trying to cross into California.
About 9,600 inadmissibles — people without documents giving them permission to come in — arrived at ports borderwide in Feburary, down 6 percent from around 10,300 the previous month.
“The system is well beyond capacity and remains at a breaking point,” said CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.
The number of apprehensions rose 39 percent from January’s almost 47,900 and 149 percent compared with last February’s about 26,600 illegal crossings. McAleenan anticipated that the numbers would only continue to increase in the coming months, following normal seasonal trends.
The overall number of apprehensions so far in fiscal 2019, at about 268,000, is up 97 percent from the approximate 132,000 caught in the same time frame in the previous year.
About half of those apprehended by Border Patrol agents borderwide last month came with family members. Another 10 percent were unaccompanied children. They typically turn themselves into agents rather than trying to sneak into the country, McAleenan said.
CBP officials have voiced concern over the increasing percentage of arriving families in recent months, which McAleenan echoed on Tuesday. They believe that adults bring children on purpose because they know that under U.S. policy they will generally be released while they wait for immigration court hearings rather than be held in detention centers because there are court-imposed limits on how long children can be held in custody.
“We have seen numbers like that in the past,” said Border Patrol chief Brian Hastings. “A lot of folks don’t understand that the significant change in the demographics of what we’re seeing today is what presents us and our partners with a lot of challenges.”
McAleenan said arriving families and unaccompanied children need more agency resources for care and processing than the single adults who used to be the largest arriving group.
The majority of those caught crossing used to be from Mexico itself, but now about 70 percent of those apprehended are from Northern Triangle countries — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, according to Hastings. Because those countries are further away, it takes longer for federal officials to deport people there than it does to return people to Mexico.
Migrants are choosing to cross in remote areas along Arizona and New Mexico sections of border more and more frequently, Hastings said.
Agents in the El Paso Sector, which includes the entire New Mexico border, apprehended more than 13,700 people last month, a 50 increase from January and a 691 percent increase from last February.
Hastings said those crossing illegally have more frequently come in groups of more than 100 people at the same time in those areas. So far in fiscal 2019, there have been 70 such groups caught crossing. In all of the previous year, agents apprehended 13 big groups, and they caught two the year before that.
He said that smuggling organizations use these large groups as a distraction so that agents are unable to guard the border from the drugs they’re bringing across at the same time.
Hastings called the situation “unsustainable.”
The agency is seeing an increasing number of border crossers who need to be referred for medical attention, Hastings said. Based on the current trend, he estimated that the total for fiscal 2019 would be more than double the number that agents took to hospitals last fiscal year.
Medical situations require agents to transport and guard migrants at hospitals, Hastings said.
“They’re pulled from the national security mission to do these things,” he said.
McAleenan said CBP is working on building a new processing center in Texas designed for arriving families and children. He also recently increased medical screenings of arriving migrants after the deaths of two children in custody in December.
He emphasized that he believes these measures are “temporary” and renewed calls for legislative changes to asylum law and detention protocols long sought by the Trump administration.
While the number of illegal border crossers increased, the number of inadmissibles remained relatively stable. Officials along the southwest border have been limiting the number of people who enter through ports of entry to seek asylum for months, which advocates and at least one government report say has likely driven more to try to cross illegally.
Close to 29 percent of February’s inadmissibles came to ports along the California border, mostly to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest port for asylum requests, where the wait list to ask the U.S. for asylum is currently about 3,200 people.
The San Diego Sector didn’t see a decades-long high in apprehensions in February. Agents apprehended over 5,400 in the area last month. More people were caught crossing illegally into San Diego in December when many in last fall’s migrant caravan gave up waiting in the asylum line and climbed an area of newly replaced border barrier.
Agents in the El Centro Sector caught more than 3,300, the highest number of border crossers in the area since early 2011.
© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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