A busy December set another record for the number of migrant parents and children taken into custody, as U.S. border agents arrested 27,518 members of “family units,” according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics released Wednesday.
Overall, authorities detained 60,782 migrants attempting to enter the United States without authorization. It marked the third consecutive month that the figure — the most widely used barometer of border trends — topped 60,000, remaining near the highest levels of the Trump presidency.
President Trump cited the soaring numbers during a prime-time address Tuesday, urging Democrats to approve his $5.7 billion border wall plan, calling the arrival of so many families a “crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.”
In December, U.S. agents struggled to cope with the family surge, as Border Patrol holding cells filled with youngsters and became miserably crowded and unhealthy. Two Guatemalan children died after being taken into custody, prompting Department of Homeland Security officials to declare a “humanitarian and national security crisis.”
With a partial government shutdown over Trump’s wall demands grinding on, Homeland Security officials have proposed $800 million in emergency funding to improve conditions for migrant families in custody, including child-appropriate processing centers, more doctors and better food.
The December data, typically published online by Customs and Border Protection, was distributed Wednesday by DHS, which noted in a news release that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was unable to publish the figures on its website “due to a lapse in funding.”
There have been signs that the migration surge has abruptly receded in recent days. Border stations and shelters that were at crisis levels in late December experienced a sudden drop in the number of families arriving in the past week, according to lawmakers and charity groups.
El Paso’s largest migrant shelter, for instance, said it has been receiving less than half the number of people it was housing in late December.
The change has perplexed Homeland Security officials, while providing a minor reprieve for frustrated U.S. border agents who are required to work without pay through the shutdown. U.S. officials say they are bracing for the numbers to spike again after the holiday season.
The shift also alleviates some of the overcrowding at border stations. The deaths of the two children last month in CBP custody were the first such incidents in a decade, Homeland Security officials said.
Jakelin Caal, 7, died at a children’s hospital in El Paso on Dec. 8, a little more than a day after she and her father arrived at a remote border outpost in New Mexico.
According to CBP, the hospital that treated the girl said she died of dehydration, shock and liver failure, but an autopsy has not been finalized, and her father has disputed the government’s version of what happened. He has insisted that his daughter was healthy before they were taken into custody.
Another Guatemalan child, Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, died on Christmas Eve in New Mexico after he and his father spent six days in Border Patrol holding cells jammed with other migrants. The boy tested positive for influenza-B, but his cause of death also remains under investigation.
Although family groups continued to cross in greater volume last month, the number of minors who arrived without a parent fell 10 percent, to 4,766, the latest figures show.
The majority of migrants taken into custody now are either parents with children or minors traveling alone, and the Trump administration says U.S. laws intended to protect vulnerable groups are creating incentives for migrants to bring children on the dangerous journey north.
In addition to its demand for border wall funding, the administration is pushing to end court-imposed limits on the amount of time children can be held in government detention, as well as changes to anti-trafficking laws that would expedite the deportation of minors.
Smuggling organizations in Central America have been offering discounted rates to migrant parents who bring children because they can take them to the U.S. border but do not need to sneak them across it.
The families are typically dropped off near the border, then directed to walk across and surrender to U.S. agents, allowing them to initiate the asylum process. Most families are assigned a court date and released from detention after a few days.
And although U.S. officials are imposing daily limits on the number of migrants allowed to apply for asylum at the busiest border crossings, families crossing in remote rural areas face no wait times.