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Border apprehensions rise as migrants attempt multiple crossings

Increase comes as Biden untangles Trump immigration policies

Even as the Biden administration moves to unwind the Trump policies along the U.S.-Mexico border — including a block on asylum seekers from seeking protection under a COVID-19 health order — rising numbers of people caught crossing the border outside ports of entry may complicate those efforts. Federal officials said Wednesday that U.S. Customs and Border Protection took into custody or processed 78,323 migrants along the southwestern border in January.

CBP said that 38 percent of arrests along the southwestern border since March involved migrants who were previously detained.

During a call with reporters Wednesday, an official with the Department of Homeland Security said the recidivism rate could "overstate the migration pressures at the border." Out of those 78,000 apprehensions in January, nearly 65,000 involved single adults, CBP officials said.

The agency also took into custody nearly 5,900 unaccompanied minors, and 7,500 people traveling together as families. In December, U.S. officials took into custody 4,700 people traveling as families, and around 5,000 unaccompanied children. Apprehensions of unaccompanied children are the highest they've been since July 2019, while the number of detained families is at the highest level since January 2020.

These numbers pale in comparison to historic highs in May 2019, when more than 88,000 parents and children, and 11,000 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody by federal officials along the southwestern border.

January's numbers follow a rise in apprehension statistics that began over the summer in 2020, and has continued nearly each month unabated, moving through the holiday period, which has historically included a lull in apprehensions. In previous years, the number of migrants usually dips through the holidays, before rising through the spring to early summer, often spiking in March through May.

However, January's apprehensions were the highest they've been in more than a decade, rising 5.8 percent from December.

Under the Trump administration, apprehensions by the Border Patrol rose 42 percent from May to June, and 23 percent from August to September. But, until recent weeks, Republican lawmakers ignored the constant trend.

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On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers immediately argued that Biden, in office for just 11 days in January, was responsible for the rise in apprehensions, and asked for the new administration to roll back new policy provisions because of a "mounting crisis."

In January, federal agents at, and in between U.S. ports, encountered 75,198 people, who were not immediately eligible for entry. Of those, all but 14,187 were immediately expelled under Title 42, a COVID-19 emergency health order that was put in place by the CDC under Trump administration. Under Title 42, CBP can refuse entry to people who "potentially pose a health risk," and to allow CBP to avoid holding people in border facilities, the policy allows the agency to immediately expel them to Mexico, or to the home countries.

This circumvents most asylum proceedings, advocates have argued.

A CBP official said the increase in crossings could be linked to crime and instability, as well as "inaccurate perceptions of shifts in immigration and border security policies."

The Title 42 expulsions have led to more migrants, largely single men, making multiple attempts to cross the border, and some agents in Arizona have complained that the situation echoes "the bad old days," when apprehensions rose to nearly 1.2 million in 2005. This is markedly different from 2019, in which agents were took into custody more than 871,000 people, largely Central American families traveling with children, or unaccompanied minors, traveling with parents or guardians.

And, CDC officials have said that the White House pushed the move for political reasons, and the policy didn't stop the spread of COVID-19.

Last year, a coalition of civil rights groups sued CBP arguing that the agency summarily expelled 13,000 unaccompanied children "without any due process— even if the child was fleeing danger and seeking protection in the United States and showed no signs of having COVID-19."

In November, a federal judge blocked CBP from expelling children under the policy, one of a series of legal losses the Trump administration absorbed as they blocked asylum entries.

Apprehensions by Border Patrol FY2001 to FY2021-YTD

As apprehensions have increased, Republican lawmakers already sounded an alarm, writing in a letter to Biden Wednesday that there was a "mounting crisis" along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Led by Rep. John Katko, 15 other Republicans on the House Committee on Homeland Security said that Biden was "putting politics ahead of national security at a time when the American people are demanding better," and said that the administration should "reconsider the policy rollbacks and focus on interagency coordination at the border, honor and build upon international agreements for irregular migration management, and expand temporary holding capacity for migrants that cannot be expelled quickly under Title 42 authority, to immediately address the developing situation."

The Republicans said that DHS learned "valuable lessons" from 2019, and said that "important security enhancements were made to prevent such a surge from happening in the future," and they blamed the Biden administration's efforts to undo those measures for the "mounting crisis at the southwest border."

Among their complaints was the release of 1,500 migrants in south Texas, who were released "into border communities without knowledge of whether any had COVID-19." The lawmakers called this a "new 'catch and release" policy,' and said that CBP released some people without putting them Alternatives to Detention programs that would allow federal officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review to track their cases.

On Wednesday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary told reporters that the U.S. will continue to turn away most migrants apprehended at its border with Mexico under Title 42, a Trump-era policy framed around limiting the spread of the coronavirus. The move would give the Biden administration time to implement a "humane" asylum system, she said.

Her statements came in response to questions about how the Biden administration was handling a rising number of families along the border, and recent reports that border officials were releasing some migrant families into the United States in Texas' Rio Grande Valley after Mexican officials balked at their expulsions.

"Due to the pandemic and the fact that we have not had the time, as an administration, to put in place a humane, comprehensive process for processing individuals who are coming to the border, now is not the time to come, and the vast majority of people will be turned away," Psaki said. "Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately; it will take time to implement."

She added that under "incredibly narrow and limited circumstances" people could come into the country while awaiting a hearing, but "the vast majority have been turned away."

Psaki said it "an emotional issue" for members of the administration, but "we need time to put in place, and partners to put in place a comprehensive process and system that will allow for processing at the border of asylum seekers, but also, you know, providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the United States."

She reiterated this point the next day, telling reporters that "the President is committed to putting in place, in partnership with our Department of Homeland Security, a moral and a humane process for processing people at the border, but that capacity is limited right now. And it means we're just not equipped to process people at the pace that we would like to do."

Psaki added that the Biden administration was "committed to digging out of the immoral approach to immigration of the prior administration," however, "we also need some time to review all of the detrimental steps that were put in place by the prior administration so that we can put a more humane system in place."

As the Biden administration attempts to slowly unravel Trump-era policies, on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts along with a private law firm filed a lawsuit, challenged the Trump-era policy.

"Throughout his presidency, Trump dismantled legal protections for people seeking safety in our country—and under the guise of public health, he caused more suffering for asylum-seekers," said Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "Our fight for these families continues, until and unless the Biden administration ends this cruel practice once and for all," she said.

The case aims to "bring to safety" seven asylum seekers, including four children, who were summarily expelled from the United States under the Border Patrol's Title 42 policy.

"Fulfilling its goal of shuttering the asylum system, the Trump administration seized upon the Covid-19 pandemic to claim that Title 42 gave it the unprecedented power to expel non-citizens without following U.S. immigration laws," the ACLU argued. "But Title 42 provides no such authority. It does not override immigration law, and it authorizes quarantines, not expulsions."

Among the plaintiffs is Angela Poe, an indigenous woman who fled Guatemala in 2018, attempted to bring her 16-year-old daughter Ana to the U.S., however, the girl was taken into custody by U.S. officials. While the girl faced persecution and violence in her home country, U.S. officials decided to remove her under Title 42.

"Instead of referring Ana to an immigration judge and placing her in the least restrictive setting—consistent with protections in effect for unaccompanied minors—DHS simply put her on a plane to Guatemala, the very country she had fled," the ACLU said. "Her expulsion occurred within days of apprehension, and without any legal process or inquiry into whether she would be safe there."

The ACLU of Massachusetts asked a federal judge to enjoin the Border Patrol's policy under Title 42, and require DHS to process their claims for protection under immigration law.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Migrants, including young children, attended a march in October 2020, asking for access to asylum in the U.S. in Nogales, Sonora.

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