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Border detentions jump again in March, as Trump struggles to block asylum-seekers

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that the agency is facing "unprecedented" numbers of migrants along the southwestern border, after the number of people detained in a month again soared, rising 35 percent from February to March. 

Of those, nearly 65 percent were either families with children, or children traveling without a parent or guardian. Most hail from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. However, even the number of single adults, who are more easily detained and ultimately deported, increased 29 percent from February to March, officials said.

In February, the agency reported that total apprehensions jumped 38 percent from January, after 76,537 people were taken into custody by CBP, and in March, apprehensions jumped again to 104,212 people. 

The shift comes as the Trump administration continues to push for hard-nosed tactics to block migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S., which on Sunday resulted in the abrupt firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen after a meeting in the White House. Further, during a visit to Calexico, Calif., on Friday, Trump reportedly told agents to not allow migrants in, telling them that the U.S. doesn't have the capacity, and to ignore the decisions made by federal judges, CNN reported

On Monday, a plan to return asylum-seekers to Mexico was blocked by a federal judge, one of a series of losses in federal court, as the Trump administration seeks to deter migrants from journeying to the U.S.

Border Patrol agents encountered the largest share of migrants, taking into custody 92,607 people, including nearly 31,000 single adults, more than 53,000 people traveling as families, and nearly 9,000 children traveling unaccompanied. Officials at the U.S. ports said that in March they had taken into custody more than 11,600 people, including 100 children traveling in families, and 423 children traveling unaccompanied. 

In January to February, officials with CBP said that the number of people deemed inadmissible dropped about six percent, but from February to March, the number of people taken into custody rose 20 percent. 

Most of the families with children, and children traveling alone are seeking asylum in the United States, and officials said that they were still reviewing their statistics, but last month, during a press conference with reporters, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said that about 80 percent of those apprehended had requested asylum and had passed their initial credible fear claim. However, that only about 10 to 20 percent were ultimately successful in receiving asylum in the immigration courts, he claimed. 

For Border Patrol agents in Arizona, rising apprehensions have come as growing numbers of families have crossed into the United States either in the remote terrain of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville, about 110 miles west of Tucson, or in remote parts of the border near San Luis, Ariz., just outside of Yuma. 

During a call with reporters, Brian Hastings, the chief of the Border Patrol's law enforcement operations, said that rise in apprehensions was "record-breaking" and that the agency was struggling to manage the increasing number of families, leading to a "breaking point." 

In March, apprehensions along the southwestern border average 3,000 people per day and "we're unable to keep pace," Hastings said. He also said that the average number of people in Border Patrol custody had reached "critical levels." On average, around 4,500 people are in custody across the entire southwestern border, but in the last two weeks, nearly 13,300 people were in custody, in "increasingly crowded conditions." 

Three sectors remained over-capacity, including the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso, and the Yuma sectors. 

This is a safety risk for agents and for "those in our custody," Hastings said. 

Hastings said that in response, the agency was "all hands on deck," and that officials were closing checkpoints, cancelling training and pulling agents from the field. 

As a last resort, beginning on March 19, Border Patrol began releasing families directly to local organizations, skipping the usual processes of sending people to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Over 11,000 people have been released to local organizations, Hastings said. 

This includes both the Yuma Sector and the Tucson Sector. 

The agency has also asked DHS employees to begin volunteering along the southwestern border, asking law enforcement officer and civilians alike to help deliver food, drive people to hospitals, and help ICE in court, in documents leaked to TucsonSentinel.com last week. 

In part, this is driven "large groups" of people of 100 or more. Hastings said that on March 28, the agency had hit an "unsettling milestone" after the 100th group of 100 or more crossed into the U.S. 

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As CBP released new statistics, Rob Daniels, an agency spokesman in Arizona, announced that 135 people, mostly families, crossed the border in a remote stretch of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, just west of Lukeville port of entry. The group immediately turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents, following a consistent pattern that has evolved in the area since last summer. 

"The group spread out before illegally entering in multiple locations," through the desert in the wildlife refuge, Daniels said. "To ensure the well-being and quick transportation of the families in the rising heat," two vehicle checkpoints on State Route 85 were closed after agents "were reallocated to the area," he said. 

In 2017, the agency encountered only two large groups, and in 2018, 13 large groups arrived in the U.S., Hastings said. 

"This intensifies the problem we are seeing," Hastings said, as the agency has shifting resources and personnel away from the "border security" mission to helping and processing migrants at distant Border Patrol stations. Nearly 40 percent of agents on the southwestern border are going to "the humanitarian mission," and the agency has spent nearly 100,000 man hours and $4 million alone on what it calls "hospital watch" details, which includes driving people to local hospitals. 

Overall, the agency has spent $90 million on "humanitarian support costs," and Hastings estimated that the agency will spend $100 million before the end of the fiscal year. 

He also warned that CBP expects this to continue through the summer, which has "historically meant increased flow," and that he's concerned that with higher temperatures, this "vulnerable population" will be at risk. 

Along with Hastings, Randy J. Howe, the executive director of operations at the Office of Field Operations, which manages the nation's ports, including border crossings and airports, said that OFO has sent 545 officers to help Border Patrol, and that this was contributing to "increased" wait-times at the nation's ports of entry. 

Originally, CBP said that it was going to send 750 agents to help, but Howe said that the 545 officials was the number BP "landed on," but that OFO would continue to "flex up or down," as needed. 

While the Trump administration has focused on increasingly harsh methods, which have been successfully blocked in federal court challenges, analysts and policy-makers have said that the federal government should instead seek ways to quickly move cases through the U.S. immigration court and process more people at the U.S. ports. 

In 2017, the Trump administration sought to hire more immigration judges, but that effort has halted, and a CBP policy known as "metering," which block asylum-seekers from going to U.S. ports may have instead encouraged people to try their luck in the remote deserts between the ports. 

While CBP officials have said that the ports at "at capacity," researchers with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law, out of the University of Texas at Austin, found that, for example, while the Nogales Port has the capability of processing up to 50 people per day, CBP’s own statistics showed that the agency was processing around 11 per day. Even worse, the San Ysidro port can process 300 to 800 people per day, but the entire San Diego area, which includes Calexico, Otay Mesa, Tecate, and San Ysidro processed only 34 people per day. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

People wait in line at the Morley pedestrian crossing in Nogales, Sonora in December.

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