Illegal immigration continues to break records on the southwestern border — and they’re not good ones.
The number of families snared trying to sneak into the U.S. soared by 50 percent in one month alone, setting an all-time record with more than 36,000 family members apprehended, Homeland Security officials announced Tuesday.
The government has also encountered some 70 groups of at least 100 migrants during the first five months of the fiscal year, shattering records and placing new challenges on Border Patrol agents.
The mini-caravans are being funneled to some of the remotest parts of the border, where there is little in the way of medical help and it takes hours to process and transport the groups. That takes agents off the line, and drug smugglers use the distraction to send across their shipments, top border officials said.
“We are facing alarming trends,” said Kevin K. McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
He said the numbers signal the existence of an immigration and humanitarian crisis, reinforcing President Trump’s assertion of an emergency necessitating his redirection of money to build a border wall.
Overall, Border Patrol agents nabbed 66,450 illegal immigrants last month, marking the worst February since 2008. Of those, 6,825 were unaccompanied alien children — juveniles who arrived at the border without any parent. Another 36,174 were family members — a majority of the total and a record-shattering number.
The previous high was 27,507 family members in December. Before fiscal 2019, the government had never topped 17,000 family members in any month on record. It has now done so in each of the past five months.
In addition to the Border Patrol, CBP officers who man the ports of entry encountered another 9,653 migrants who tried to enter without authorization.
That is a slight drop from the past few months, and it suggests that illegal immigrants are defying the government’s goal of having them show up at ports of entry to be processed.
An inspector general’s report last year said CBP officers were throttling the pace of people allowed to show up and demand asylum at the ports of entry, and some then attempted to sneak across the border instead.
CBP officials say it’s smugglers who determine where migrants enter.
Indeed, the formation of mini-caravans is a tactic used by smugglers, officials said Tuesday. The same cartels control drugs and human smuggling, and they use migrants as a distraction by sending a large group of people to occupy agents’ attention and then try to slip drugs into the U.S. in another location.
“We have four specific cases here recently that we’ve seen those family units used as a diversionary tactic,” said Brian Hastings, chief of law enforcement operations at the Border Patrol.
Caravans as large as 300 people are delivered to places such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a beautiful but rugged location in southern Arizona that is far from any substantial infrastructure or medical care.
In just five months of the current fiscal year, agents have encountered 70 large groups, defined as those of 100 or more migrants. The previous year’s total was 13 large groups.
All told, nearly 160,000 unaccompanied alien children and family members have been encountered at the border over the past five months.
That is far more than the 120,000 encountered in 2014, when President Obama first called it a crisis, said Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“It was a humanitarian crisis in 2014, and it is a growing crisis today. It is well past time to develop bipartisan solutions to secure our border and fix our horribly broken immigration system,” he said.
Mr. McAleenan suggested some options Tuesday, including investing in Central America, targeting the multibillion-dollar smuggling organizations that funnel the migrants north, constructing more border wall and changing laws to end incentives to migrate to the U.S.
At current rates, the Border Patrol is on track to arrest more than 780,000 people trying to sneak across the southwestern border, which would be the highest total since 2007 — before the government’s last wall-building spree.
Officials said the current numbers show that a majority of the migrants are children and families from Central America. Under U.S. policy, they are much tougher to deport.
That only invites more to make the journey, said Chief Hastings.
“The word of mouth and social media quickly gets back to those in northern triangle countries: If you bring a child, you’ll be successful,” Chief Hastings said.
The number of people caught at the border is generally considered a proxy for the total flow of illegal immigration, so more apprehensions is believed to mean more people are attempting to cross.
However, Mr. McAleenan acknowledged that the formula has changed in recent years based on the new demographics of the migrants.
In the past, when most were single adults from Mexico and a majority were men, their goal was to evade capture. Now, the children and families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — dubbed the northern triangle countries — want to be caught.
After sneaking across the border, they often “present” themselves to Border Patrol agents and demand asylum, certain that they will be quickly released into communities to await a process that can take years — giving them a chance to disappear into the shadows.
Mr. McAleenan said the surge of children and families has grown worse in the past few months as smuggling organizations begin to use charter buses to ferry migrants from Guatemala, in particular, to remote locations at the border in Arizona and New Mexico.
Buses also mean more migrants who would normally not be able to make the journey by foot are traveling, and it’s meant a surge in sick people arriving at the border.
Fifty-five migrants a day are being sent to clinics or hospitals for care, and the Border Patrol says it’s on track for 31,000 total this year. That is up from 12,000 last year.
Agents have to accompany each of those migrants, taking them away from enforcement duties.
Chief Hastings said his agents have logged 57,000 hours of medical watch so far this fiscal year.