Taxpayers are footing the bill for illegal immigrant parents to collect their children from federal shelters, as the Biden administration tries to speed up the process of getting a record surge of juvenile migrants out of its custody.
Nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children were nabbed jumping the border in March, the Department of Homeland Security revealed Thursday, doubling the number from February and shattering the previous record of about 11,500, set in May 2019.
And while it wasn’t a record, the surge in families attempting to jump the border was also stunning, rising by more than 175% in just one month and suggesting that the unaccompanied children, while drawing the most attention, are not the biggest long-term challenge.
Combined, the families and unaccompanied children accounted for about 72,500 of the 172,331 illegal border encounters Customs and Border Protection recorded in March.
Troy Miller, CBP’s acting commissioner, suggested the situation was under control.
“This is not new,” he said of the surging numbers. “Encounters have continued to increase since April 2020, and our past experiences have helped us be better prepared for the challenges we face this year.”
But analysts said given the current trends, CBP is on track for 1.2 million encounters with illegal border crossers, which would be far above anything the country’s seen since the Bush years.
Though the fiscal year is only halfway done, it has already surpassed all of 2020 in border arrests.
“Children are being abandoned in harsh conditions, smugglers are using groups of children to divert border patrol agents, all while known gang members and those on the terrorism watch list are exploiting Biden’s weak policies,” Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee said in a memo on the numbers. “President Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris are nowhere to be found. This IS the Biden Border Crisis.”
Unaccompanied children are supposed to be sent to shelters run by the federal Health and Human Services Department, which then looks for sponsors to take them.
HHS had lacked capacity to take many of the children, leaving them mired in Border Patrol holding cells, but a rush effort by the Biden administration has begun to turn the corner.
As of Wednesday, Customs and Border Protection had 4,107 unaccompanied children in its custody — still crisis levels — but an improvement from the 5,767 who were being held on March 28.
Children are now being transferred out faster than they’re coming in to the Border Patrol.
That does, however, leave HHS managing a staggering population of children — about 16,500 as of Tuesday.
Desperate to place those children with sponsors, HHS is offering to pay for flights for family members already in the U.S. to come pick up the children, even in the frequent cases when those relatives are in the country illegally, administration officials said this week.
HHS has not responded to requests from The Washington Times for details on how much is being spent.
Administration officials also have said they will not use legal status against anyone as they push to move the children through.
And officials announced this week that they have stopped doing background checks on all people in a home when they place a child with a relative such as an uncle or cousin. That had already been policy when placing children with parents.
Expanding the policy can speed up getting children out of custody, but it also may mean some children get put into dangerous situations where a housemate has a serious criminal record. During previous surges, children were placed in situations in which they were forced to labor on farms or faced abuse.
Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, has been tracking those issues for years.
“The U.S. federal government should not repeat the mistakes of prior administrations and hand these vulnerable children off to traffickers or other abusive situations, and there must be accountability to ensure the government can keep track of the children as they make their way through the legal system,” he said Thursday.
The Biden administration has refused to use the “crisis” label, though Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited the border Thursday, his third trip during his short tenure, to get a look at the latest developments.
He did not allow press access to his trip.
Of the 172,331 border jumping encounters reported in March, about 168,000 were nabbed trying to sneak in between the ports of entry by the Border Patrol. That’s the highest monthly number in 20 years. The rest were encountered as they presented themselves at border crossings without permission to enter.
March’s numbers challenge Mr. Biden’s claim that the surge he’s facing is typical and happens “every year,” and they undercut his assertion at a March 25 press conference that the “vast majority” of families are being sent back.
In reality, the March data show a majority of families are being processed and released into communities.
The total encounters at the border last month double-count some people who made multiple attempts during the month, having been caught and expelled yet tried again. Officials said there was a 28% recidivism rate.
But officials also acknowledged migrants are beginning to game the new system by bringing younger children — families with children under 6 who show up in southern Texas are usually admitted, while those with older children are being expelled.
And those without younger children are sometimes splitting up and sending their children over alone, as unaccompanied juveniles, to take advantage of leniency implemented by the Biden administration.
Border Patrol agents have recorded shocking instances of treatment of children in recent weeks.
Two children, ages 3 and 5, were dropped by smugglers from the top of a 14-foot border wall late last month. And earlier this week, smugglers pushed two other young children, ages 5 and 6, across some boulders at the border and then fled back into Mexico.
On Thursday, agents said they found an 8-year-old who had been abandoned and was walking aimlessly in the desert, miles from the nearest road.
Another migrant woman found the boy and took him along as they made their way, where they were nabbed by agents.
“We find that Transnational Criminal Organizations routinely attempt to smuggle people in groups but often end up abandoning the women and children in remote areas where they are left in great danger and to fend for themselves when they can’t keep up with the group,” said Gloria I. Chavez, chief patrol agent in the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector.