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DHS head: CBP facing 'unprecendented number' of migrants

CBP 'encountered' 1.3 million people, but around 27 percent had previously crossed U.S.-Mexico border

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Thursday that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are facing an "unprecedented number" of migrants across the southwestern border, but that 27 percent of those intercepted had previously crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at least once in the past 12 months.

During a press conference in Brownsville, Texas, Mayorkas outlined how a Trump-era policy left in place by the Biden administration has dramatically increased overall encounters. He also described a series of new policies intended to blunt the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and blamed the Trump administration for shuttering successful programs, forcing the Biden administration to "rebuild" the U.S. immigration system to "ensure fairness and promote equity."

Mayorkas also sought to "debunk false information" about migrants and COVID-19, saying that DHS was testing migrants against the disease and that overall, the rate of positive tests among immigrants was at, or lower than U.S. rates.

Over the last 10 months, a total of 854,307 people have attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, Mayorkas said. He compared the 2021 figures to the same time period in 2019, when 796,400 people were picked up along the southwestern border.

"We have seen surges in migration before, we've seen them in the past and migration surges are not new," Mayorkas said. "... and importantly, migrants encountered along our border are expelled or are placed in immigration proceedings. The rise in encounters of migrants at the southern border began in April of 2020, but the increase is most certainly sharper over the past several months and greater than in June."

Data from CBP shows that overall U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted people more than 1.3 million times, the largest influx of activity along the border in 20 years.

In 1999, despite being smaller and less well-funded, Border Patrol reported intercepting people 1.5 million times. The next year, apprehensions hit their peak with more than 1.6 million encounters under the Bush administration.

Ariz. Gov. Doug Ducey immediately seized on the announcement, calling Mayorkas a "defeatist," and demanding the DHS Secretary resign from his post, even as overall apprehensions in Arizona's two Border Patrol sectors remain far below historical levels, and apprehensions declined in the Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, Trump administration officials put into place Title 42—a public health order ostensibly supported by the CDC—that allows CBP officials to rapidly deport those who crossed into the U.S. after they traveled through a country with COVID-19 infections.

This policy, which relies on a 1944 public health law, was used by the Trump administration to push migrants out of the United States, including thousands of asylum seekers who are still marooned in northern Mexico.  That policy has remained in place under President Joe Biden, even as other Trump border policy bulwarks, including the Migrant Protection Protocols, were shuttered.

"These numbers — and I think this is a very important point — these numbers do not reflect the number of different people who were encountered on the border," Mayorkas said, explaining that the larger numbers of Title 42 expulsions has resulted in migrants "making multiple border crossing attempts."

Data released Friday show that migrants were encountered 212,672 across the southwestern border in July, a 13 percent increase from June. Mayorkas said that 95,788 people were immediately expelled, the majority single adults. 

While agents had nearly 213,000 encounters with people in July, this represents about 154,288 unique individuals.

Since February, CBP has reported that the recidivism rate of people attempting to cross into the U.S. after they were expelled under  Title 42, or through the usual immigration system under Title 8, has been as high as 38 percent. In July, it had declined to about 27 percent, Mayorkas said. This is far higher than the historical recidivism rate which was around 14 percent before Title 42 was put into place.  

In previous years, summer along the U.S.-Mexico border has indicated the end of the season of migration as temperatures spikes, however, encounters have continued to increase since April 2020, rising sharply from February and March 2021 and into the summer months of June and July. 

"I want to communicate very clearly that the situation along the border is one of the toughest challenges we face: it is complicated, changing and involves vulnerable people at a time of a global pandemic," Mayorkas said. 

Mayorkas hangs blame on Trump administration, outlines new plans to quickly deport migrants

Mayorkas outlined a series of policies intended to mitigate migration, including millions in grants and initiatives intended to stabilize the region, addressing crime, and gender-based violence. He also said that the State Department and DHS restarted the Central American Minors program, to reunite children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras with their parents in the U.S.

"This is a program that was working and that President Trump dismantled," he said.

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Mayorkas said there were several reasons for the rise in migrant encounters along the U.S.-Mexico border, including "worsening conditions" in their home countries, including poverty, and a rise in violence and corruption. Mayorkas described how boys in the region are often threatened and cajoled to join gangs, while girls are often threatened with rape "as they walk to school."

"Tragically, former President Trump slashed our international assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Slashed the sources we used to contribute and address the root causes of irregular migration," he said.

Mayorkas also said that encounters were rising because of the "end of the cruel policies of the past administration, and the restoration of the rule of laws of this country, that Congress has passed, including our asylum laws that provide humanitarian relief."

"And, thirdly and importantly, the resurgence of the economy in the United States, and the gleam of the American promise again," he said.

He said that the Biden administration had also ended the use of Title 42 to expel children regardless of age, a policy that faced a successful challenge in November by humanitarian groups.

"That is a process we discontinued in the Biden administration for humanitarian reasons, because they are in fact, just children," Mayorkas said. "Some are very tender of age. Some of these children are eligible to make a claim for asylum, or to pursue special immigrant juvenile status in court proceedings under our laws."

Mayorkas said that the administration was working to address the "root causes" of migration and create a "safe orderly pathway" for migrants to apply for asylum without going on the "perilous journey."  Additionally, Mayorkas said the administration was working on "improving security, management and processing at our border" and had begun "attacking" smugglers along the border.

Mayorkas also defended a policy of flying immigrants across the United States, so they can be expelled to other Mexican states after some of those just south of Texas refused to take people, telling DHS they lacked the capacity. And, he outlined a new policy to blunt recidivism where agents fly migrants into the interior of Mexico "so return is not as easy."

Additionally, he said that DHS was working to prosecute more people previously removed, and expedited removals, so DHS has the ability to remove people who lost their asylum cases "more expeditiously."

Mayorkas said they would also speed up immigration courts, "without compromising due process, and work with Mexico to increased interdiction efforts.

"We are prepared to do more as the situation warrants," he said. "It is critical that intending migrants understand clearly that they will be turned back if they enter the United States illegally and do not have a basis for relief under our laws."

Mayorkas said that while single adults are almost immediately expelled from the U.S. under Title 42, the administration will allow families to stay in the U.S. if they claim that they cannot return to their home countries, and are seeking asylum. Families are taken into custody, given COVID-19 tests, and isolated people with positive results.

"We are facing a serious challenge, and the challenge is more acute because of the COVID-19 pandemic," Mayorkas said." It is also been made more difficult because of the fact that the prior administration dismantled our asylum system," he said. "Nevertheless, we meet challenges."

"We have a plan, we are executing a plan, and that takes time," he  said.

Ducey calls for Mayorkas' resignation

In a statement, Arizona's governor referenced leaked comments that Mayorkas made to Border Patrol agents in Texas during a private meeting. During the audio, which was given to Fox News, Mayorkas  said that encounters were "unsustainable."

"We can't continue like this, our people in the field can't continue and our system isn't built for it," Fox News reported.

"A defeatist is not what we need when it comes to fighting for border security," Ducey said.

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"Unlike Secretary Mayorkas, Arizonans understand that strong borders are essential to public safety and national security," he said. "The Biden-Harris administration’s record of failure on this issue has led to this moment. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, through their words and their actions, have signaled to the world that America’s southern border is wide open and unprotected," he claimed.

Ducey claimed that the administration "completely lost control of the border," and that Mayorkas "demonstrated that he fully understands the catastrophe playing out at the border, and yet he lacks the skill, ability and will to address it adequately."

Earlier this year, Ducey attacked Harris, criticizing her appointment as a "border czar," telling reporters during a press conference at the University of Arizona's vaccine distribution site that she was the "worst possible choice."

Ducey said that Biden had "completely trivialized the issue by putting someone in charge who flat out just doesn't care," and said that in "no point in her career" had the vice president "given any indication that she considers the border a problem or a serious threat."

Ducey's fellow traveler and current Senate candidate, Mark Brnovich said that Biden and Harris "persist in their radical immigration policies, even at the escalating cost of American lives."

"I will continue to lead the charge to restore law and order at our border," said the current attorney general for Arizona, adding that he had filed several lawsuits in federal court to challenge the Biden administration. While he continues to pursue his lawsuits, a federal judge again rejected Brnovich's arguments against a pause in deportations, rendering the case moot because the policy had lapsed months ago.

As Tucson Sector quiets, Yuma Sector gets busier

In the Tucson Sector, which covers the Arizona-Mexico border from the Yuma County line east to the border of New Mexico, agents encountered 17,977 people in July, a decline of around 2 percent. However,  in the adjacent Yuma Sector, which straddles the Colorado River, apprehensions rose more than 19 percent from June to July.

Changing demographics drove this shift, while about of 80 percent of encounters in the Tucson Sector were with single adults, they only made up about 36 percent of the people encountered in Yuma's deserts.

Instead, in the Yuma Sector, more than 58 percent of encounters were families traveling with children. Tucson Sector agents did encounter nearly 2,000 children traveling alone, more than double the number that Yuma agents encountered.

Last week, Yuma Sector agents encountered more than 1,500 people over the weekend. A week earlier, on August 1, agents received a 911 call from a woman who was part of a group lost in the desert just beyond Yuma. One man, identified only as 45-year-old Mexican national had died, CBP said.

The foot guide was arrested, and faces charges for human smuggling that resulted in a death, officials said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent at 'tent-like' facility in Tucson, set up to manage children who traveled to the U.S. without parents or guardians.