Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says immigration authorities are encountering an "unprecedented number of migrants" at the southern border.
Authorities encountered migrants more than 212,000 times in July, according to official numbers released Thursday — including nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children, surpassing the monthly record set in March.
In a visit to Brownsville, Texas, Mayorkas acknowledged the problem that large numbers of migrants are creating for local communities.
"The situation at the border is one of the toughest challenges we face," he said at a press conference. "It is complicated, changing and involves vulnerable people at a time of a global pandemic."
Mayorkas said that a rising number of migrants are testing positive for COVID-19. But he pushed back on claims that migrants are driving the dramatic rise in cases across the south.
"The rate of positivity is at or lower than the rates in our local border communities," Mayorkas said. "We are building new capacity to address the situation, and we are doing so as rapidly as possible. The extent of the challenge should not be overstated. But nor should our ability to meet it."
The combination of rising COVID-19 rates and rising numbers of migrants is straining resources up and down the border — particularly in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, which has seen the biggest increase of any sector.
The U.S. Border Patrol was forced to hold migrants for processing under the Anzalduas International Bridge because its regular facilities were overcrowded, a spokesman said. The nearby city of McAllen, Texas opened a tent encampment last week to care for recently-released migrants who have tested positive for COVID-19.
It's unusual for crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border to rise from June to July. Migration typically peaks in the spring, and then declines in the summer as the hotter weather sets in. Republican critics blame the Biden administration and its immigration policies for the unusual summer spike in the numbers.
"This is about what our policies are on our borders," said Mark Morgan, the former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the Trump administration, who's now a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"If you apply effective consequences .... I promise you, the flow will go down," he said.
The Biden administration has tried to strike a balance between allowing the most vulnerable migrants to seek asylum in the U.S., while discouraging others from trying to cross the border.
DHS recently began using "expedited removal" to fly some migrants to southern Mexico. And the administration has extended a Trump administration public health order known as Title 42, which allows authorities to quickly expel migrants back to Mexico without allowing them to seek asylum — although the Biden administration has made an exception for unaccompanied children and many families crossing the border.
Title 42 has also made it harder to compare the current situation at the border with the past, immigration authorities say.
The number of "encounters" is higher than the actual number of migrants crossing the border, Mayorkas said, because many of those migrants are crossing multiple times in the same month without penalty, and get counted more than once. He put the number of "unique individuals" encountered in July at 154,288 — still a big number, but more in line with other recent peaks in migration.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:
Immigration authorities are encountering an unprecedented number of migrants at the southern border. Those are the words Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas used to describe the situation at the border during a visit to Brownsville, Texas, yesterday.
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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: The situation at 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.
ELLIOTT: Immigration authorities encountered migrants more than 212,000 times in July. Now, that includes a record number of unaccompanied children and teenagers, almost 19,000. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us now to break down these numbers. Good morning.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: So big numbers at the border is something that we've encountered all year. What stands out about these latest figures?
ROSE: Well, first off, the timing. Usually we see that migration peaks in the spring. And then it declines in the summer when the hotter weather sets in. That's not happening this year. The numbers were high in the spring. And now they're going even higher.
ELLIOTT: How about a little historical context here? How does this compare to situations that we've seen in the past?
ROSE: Well, this is where it gets complicated. The number of encounters recorded last month is the highest we've seen in 21 years. But that number is actually bigger than the number of individual migrants who are crossing the border, because a significant percentage of migrants today are being quickly expelled under a public health order known as Title 42 that's been in place since the pandemic started. And then they're crossing again. Secretary Mayorkas said yesterday that the number of unique individuals crossing the border last month was about 154,000. That's still a very big number. But it's closer to the other recent peaks, including in 2019.
ELLIOTT: What does this look like on the ground?
ROSE: Well, in a word, it's a mess, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, where the numbers are the highest. It's overwhelming the resources of everyone involved, that includes the Border Patrol, which has been forced to process migrants under a bridge because its regular facilities are so overcrowded. It also includes border towns and non-profits and charities in those towns that help care for migrants who are allowed into the U.S. to pursue asylum claims. The Biden administration says it is focused on addressing the root causes of migration. And it's still trying to find a balance between allowing the most vulnerable migrants into the country while telling everyone not to come and largely expelling other migrants back to Mexico. It's not a very popular position with anybody right now.
ELLIOTT: What are Biden's Republican critics saying about it?
ROSE: Well, essentially, I told you so. They want to hang all of this on Biden and his policies. They say that lifting any of the Trump administration's hardline immigration policies was a mistake because it hasn't - it was seen as encouraging migrants from all over the world. Here is former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan on a call with reporters yesterday.
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MARK MORGAN: This is about what our policies are on our borders. And if you apply effective consequences and you're detaining individuals that break into our country against the rule of law, I promise you, the flow will go down.
ROSE: Immigrant advocates dispute that. They say it's legal to ask for asylum and that these are desperate people who are fleeing from violence and corruption and poverty. Advocates argue that all this has very little to do with our border policies.
ELLIOTT: Well, thank you for the update. NPR's Joel Rose.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.