More than 171,000 migrants were caught trying to cross into the United States from Mexico in March, new border patrol data shows.
The number of apprehensions last month is the highest monthly total in at least 15 years and exceeds the pace of the latest surge in 2019 which peaked at 133,000 a month.
The data offers an alarming new measure of the scope of the humanitarian challenge confronting President Joe Biden at the southwest US border. Biden has eased the harsh “Remain in Mexico” asylum and family separation policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
The March total of border apprehensions, shared by US officials with the Reuters news outlet, includes about 19,000 unaccompanied migrant children and 53,000 family members travelling together, the preliminary figures show. Single adults made up roughly 99,000 of the total.
The Biden administration is struggling to find housing for unaccompanied children who have crammed border stations and processing centres for weeks.
The US government’s shelter system that houses children has been overwhelmed and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is scrambling to open emergency shelters, including sites in convention centres in Dallas and San Diego.
The surge in migration is overwhelming the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service leading to as many as 1,000 people a day crossing into the US without being caught, The Washington Post newspaper reported, citing officials familiar with the data.
To ease pressure on the border patrol and its overcrowded holding facilities, authorities are releasing some migrant families without notices to appear in immigration court or sometimes without any paperwork at all.
A grainy video released on March 31 by border authorities captures the desperation of parents and children trying to get into the US. In a scene caught by a remote camera, a man drops two little girls ages three and five, from the top of a 4.3-metre fence, according to The Associated Press.
In the video, a man lowers a toddler while holding onto one arm. With the child dangling, he lets go. She lands on her feet, then falls face-first into the dirt. The smuggler does the same thing with a slightly larger child, who falls on her feet and then her bottom. Then the smuggler and another man run away into the Mexican desert, the AP reported.
The CBP has invested in remote cameras and surveillance technology that allows the agency to detect illegal crossings as they happen.
The two girls were found alert, taken to a hospital and cleared of any physical injuries. As of April 1, they remained at a border patrol temporary holding facility pending placement by HHS.
The girls’ mother is in the US and authorities are in contact with her, a CBP spokesman told the AP without providing more details.
President Biden has placed Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of the administration’s response to the surging number of migrants trying to enter the US.
Harris has called the wave of unaccompanied children crossing the US’s southern border from Mexico a “huge problem” and said it would not be solved “overnight”.
Biden has faced criticism from Republicans, who have blamed the US president for the increase in arrivals.