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Border agents took 172,331 into custody in March, statistics show

A migrant family climbs up an embankment of the Rio Grande river on March 29 near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
A migrant family climbs up an embankment of the Rio Grande river on March 29 near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

During the busiest month along the Mexico border in nearly two decades, U.S. authorities took 172,331 migrants into custody in March, according to enforcement statistics released Thursday that provide a stark measure of the challenges facing the Biden administration.

The total included 18,890 teens and children who arrived without parents, a record quantity that overwhelmed U.S. shelter capacity and produced crisis-level crowding inside government border tents. The March statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show the fastest-growing group were members of family units: 52,904 were taken into custody in March, up from 19,246 in February.

The increase last month was so large that it did not fit on the y-axis of the CBP chart that tracks changes in monthly enforcement data. The figures confirm preliminary data reported by The Washington Post and other news organizations last week.

President Biden last month described the surging numbers as consistent with historic seasonal trends, but the last time the U.S. Border Patrol made more arrests was March 2001.

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“We are continuing to dig out of a hole left by the previous administration,” said one administration official who briefed reporters on condition that no names could be printed.

CBP records show the soaring number of crossings tallied since Biden took office has no recent comparison. CBP recorded 78,442 arrests and detentions in January, and the nearly 100,000 raw increase since then is the busiest two-month span in 20 years.

“CBP has experienced an increase in encounters and arrests. This is not new,” said Troy Miller, CBP’s top official, in a statement issued Thursday. “We are committed to balancing the need to maintain border security, care for those in our custody, and keep the American people and our workforce safe.”

Biden administration officials said they continued to use the Trump administration’s emergency health order known as Title 42 to rapidly “expel” most illegal crossers. About 103,000 were processed under the Title 42 order last month, officials said, including the vast majority of adults.

CBP has witnessed a major increase in repeat crossing attempts by migrants turned back to Mexico under Title 42, and officials said 28 percent of those taken into custody were previously expelled.

Biden officials have acknowledged they are no longer turning back the majority of families that enter without authorization, citing capacity limits in Mexico. About 33 percent of families were expelled under the Title 42 order in March, officials said.

The Trump administration used the pandemic order to return unaccompanied minors on flights, but Biden officials announced in late January that they would allow the teens and children into the United States to request humanitarian protection.

The previous one-month high for teens and children arriving alone was 11,861, was set in May 2019. The government now has more than 20,000 minors in CBP and HHS custody, the most ever, the latest figures show.

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The administration officials said they have progressed in their ability to move more unaccompanied minors out of cramped border stations and transfer them to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, which then attempts to locate family members or other sponsors eligible to assume custody.

At the beginning of the month, HHS was accepting 276 minors per day from CBP stations, and by the end of March, that figure was up to 507 per day. “We are moving in the right direction,” one official said.

But the latest HHS and DHS data shows teens and children continue to spend an average of more than 135 hours in CBP facilities, far longer than the 72-hour legal limit.

Biden has responded to the historic influx mostly by adding shelter capacity for minors and accelerating the release of parents crossing the border with children. His administration has urged Mexico to stiffen its immigration enforcement efforts and take back more families expelled across the border.

Administration officials said Biden’s “long-term vision” will focus on “root causes” propelling emigration from Central America, including poverty, violence, climate change and widespread destruction from hurricanes last fall.

Biden officials aid they are deploying USAID disaster-assistance teams to Guatemala and Honduras to alleviate some of the most acute needs from storm damage in those nations. The Trump administration sent USAID teams last November as well, though with lower levels of financial assistance, records show.