The Border Patrol nabbed more than 15,000 illegal immigrants traveling as families on the southwest border in November — a massive increase that marks the worst November on record and the second worst overall, according to statistics released Thursday.
The number of children traveling without parents also ticked up, topping 7,000 for the month, but it’s the surge of families that is straining the Border Patrol and testing the Obama administration’s resolve.
Combined, the children and families fleeing Central America for the U.S. have reshaped the challenges of the illegal migration problem, sending overall illegal immigration numbers back to levels not seen in years. The 47,214 illegal border crossings reported in November is 44 percent higher than in 2015 and marks the worst November in years.
The families and children are trying new methods, including showing up and demanding entry to the U.S. Officers at the legal ports of entry reported a 226 percent spike in children they encountered in October and November, compared with the same two months in 2015.
Obama officials blame conditions in Central America, saying poverty and violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are forcing people to make the trip north.
But the Border Patrol’s chief told Congress that U.S. policy is inviting the surge because migrants, coached by the smugglers they are paying, have learned to game the system.
The worst month for children and families was June 2014, the peak of the previous surge. But migration is cyclical, and the fact that this year had the worst November on record suggests that fiscal year 2017, which began in October, is poised to set more records for families.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the border, said the surge goes beyond Central Americans.
Haitians displaced by natural disasters, who have been living in Brazil for years, also have been making their way north. Authorities are seeing an increase in the number of Cubans, too, the agency said.
“CBP continues to maintain a strong security posture through background checks of all individuals encountered and ensures that each person is processed in accordance with U.S. immigration laws and DHS policy,” the agency said.
CBP has opened more processing facilities to handle the workloads and has taken 150 agents from elsewhere and sent them to Texas, which is handling most of the surge.
Agents who should be on the front lines are instead assigned to baby-sitting duties, Border Patrol Chief Mark Morgan told Congress last month, recounting a conversation he had with senior officers in Texas.
“The supervisor that was in charge said, ‘You know, Chief, we’re going to do whatever this country asks us to do. But I never thought in my 20 years that I would be as part of the procurement ordering baby powder and baby wipes,’” Mr. Morgan said. “Agents, one of their jobs during the day is to actually make sure that the food, the burritos that were provided, are being warmed properly.”
He said the children and families are being used as a distraction, keeping agents occupied while drugs are smuggled in elsewhere.
The Border Patrol is supposed to quickly process the children and families and send them on to other agencies. The children go to social workers, while the families are to be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that handles deportations.
ICE says its policy is also to quickly process the families and release those without security issues, but the families often refuse to show up for deportation hearings.
The agency said the best way to make sure people show up for deportation hearings is to hold them in custody. As of last month, ICE had expanded the number of beds used to hold migrants to 41,000 — far more than the 32,000 it was holding on an average day in 2015.
That has drawn fire from immigrant rights groups, which say holding families with children is inhumane.
On Wednesday the United Nations joined the chorus of complaints, issuing a call to nations around the globe to stop holding migrant children in detention.
“Let us be clear: Immigration detention is never in the best interests of the child,” said the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Even short periods of detention have an adverse and long-lasting effect on a child’s development, on their physical and mental well-being, and might aggravate previous trauma experienced in the countries of origin or transit.”
Obama administration officials insist they provide families with adequate care but have struggled with how to balance the needs of enforcement with humanitarian obligations.
Many of the migrants have figured out how to game the system and exploit the administration’s struggles. Nearly one in 10 encountered at the border now are demanding asylum, using what Mr. Morgan called “magic words” to bypass the usual deportation procedure and get released quickly.
They are still supposed to be in the deportation process but often don’t bother to show for their hearings.
The Border Patrol is reporting a massive increase in the number of Haitians abusing the system.
Over the past two months, nearly 5,700 Haitians have shown up at ports of entry, demanding to be let in despite not having permission. That is just shy of the 6,400 for all of the previous fiscal year and far more than the 334 encountered in all of 2015.
Many of the Haitians are using the “magic words” formula to demand entry, officials said.