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Border crossings leveling off but remain near 20-year high, preliminary April data shows

Migrants from Guatemala and Honduras are questioned by a Border Patrol agent after being smuggled on an inflatable raft in Roma, Texas, Sunday, March 28, 2021.  (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
Migrants from Guatemala and Honduras are questioned by a Border Patrol agent after being smuggled on an inflatable raft in Roma, Texas, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
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Unauthorized crossings along the Mexico border have remained near 20-year highs this month, with slightly fewer unaccompanied minors and family members taken into custody by U.S. agents but more adults arriving than in March, according to preliminary U.S. Customs and Border Protection data obtained by The Washington Post.

President Biden has struggled during his first 100 days to contend with a historic surge in illegal crossings that has galvanized his opponents and frustrated members of his own party. If his administration can find a silver lining in the data through the first three weeks of April, it is that migration has not continued to increase as the same steep rate recorded in February and March.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is on pace to take in about 17,000 teens and children this month, down slightly from March, and roughly 50,000 migrants traveling as part of a family group, according to the latest preliminary figures. The overall number of border arrests and detentions in April is projected to be roughly the same as last month, when 172,331 were taken into CBP custody.

The Biden administration has made headway in recent weeks on its most urgent crisis, reducing by more than half the number of unaccompanied teens and children held in dangerously overcrowded Border Patrol stations and tent facilities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services have opened more than a dozen emergency shelters at convention centers and military sites since Biden took office, and his administration is now holding more than 21,000 teens and children who arrived without parents, a record. The minors typically spent a month in the facilities while the government screens family members and other potential sponsors seeking to take custody.

Unaccompanied minors spend weeks in government custody even when they have parents waiting to take custody in the U.S.

About 550 teens and children have been crossing the border without parents each day in recent weeks, data show, down 10 to 15 percent from late March.

Customs and Border Protection officials who were not authorized to discuss the preliminary April data said they thought expanded Mexican enforcement was the most important factor limiting the increase in migration in recent weeks. The agency did not respond to a request for official comment.

After Biden officials last month agreed to send Mexico millions of surplus AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines, Mexican authorities announced new entry restrictions along its southern borders with Guatemala and Belize, while deploying soldiers and police officers to operate highway checkpoints.

Biden officials continue to rely on a Trump-era emergency health order known as Title 42 that allows U.S. agents to quickly return most single adults, and some families, to Mexico. The measure has helped limit the spread of coronavirus infection inside U.S. detention facilities and border stations, but officials acknowledge the policy has facilitated repeat crossing attempts by migrants who try again and again until they successfully sneak past U.S. agents.

Some veteran border analysts surmise that smuggling networks have capacity limitations of their own — vehicles, safe houses, coyote guides — that can hamper their ability to scale up operations at an exponential pace. Between January and March, the number of border arrests made by U.S. agents jumped nearly 100,000, the steepest two-month increase in the past two decades.

The Biden administration continues to urge migrants to stay home, while redoubling its efforts to address what it considers the “root causes” driving so many Central Americans to leave. Biden has asked Vice President Harris to lead the administration’s efforts to work with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to ease “push factors” driving emigration, but it’s unclear whether Harris’s plan will include additional measures to discourage migrants from attempting the journey.

Biden officials have pressed governments in Mexico and Central America to increase their enforcement efforts. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this month that Mexico has committed to maintain about 10,000 troops along its southern border, and Guatemala has sent 1,500 soldiers and police personnel to its boundary with Honduras. She said Guatemala has added a dozen checkpoints along major transit routes through the country used by migrants.

“The objective is to make it more difficult to make the journey, and make crossing the borders more difficult,” Psaki said.

During a record influx of Central American families in 2019, President Donald Trump threatened to clobber the Mexican economy with escalating tariffs, prompting president Andrés Manuel López Obrador to launch a militarized crackdown that reduced border crossings through mass arrests and deportations.