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The U.S. continued to see a sharp increase in the number of migrants crossing the southern border in March, including a record number of unaccompanied children taken into custody, according to new data shared by Biden administration officials.
More than 18,800 unaccompanied children crossed the border in March, officials told reporters on a call Wednesday ahead of the release of Customs and Border Protection’s monthly figures on Thursday. It’s a record-breaking figure; the highest monthly number recorded were more than 11,000 children that crossed the border in May 2019. The March numbers released Thursday represent an almost 100 percent increase from February, when more than 9,400 minors were taken into custody.
The March figures come as President Joe Biden continues to grapple with the long-standing political and logistical challenges of handling an increased number of migrant arrivals. Officials have rushed to move unaccompanied children and teenagers out of CBP custody and into shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. They’ve also sought to unite Democrats around a new, more nuanced message on immigration policy amid rising criticism from Republicans who claim the Biden's administration's shift away from hardline Trump-era policies has invited the surge in border crossers.
In total, more than 172,000 migrants were apprehended at the border in March, officials said, marking a 15-year high in monthly crossings. Of those, the majority — more than 100,000 — were almost immediately expelled. That’s because the Biden administration has continued to use Title 42, a public health authority former President Donald Trump invoked in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic to kick out migrants without letting them seek asylum.
About 28 percent of those expelled were repeat crossers that had previously been expelled, officials said.
Meanwhile, more than 52,000 migrant families arrived in March, officials shared. More than 17,000 — almost one-third — of the families were expelled under Title 42. Biden has said he wants Mexico to accept back all migrant families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border but Mexico is often unwilling or unable to receive them.
In the immediate term, the Biden administration has continued to take steps to increase shelter capacity and reduce the time it takes to release unaccompanied minors to vetted sponsors, like a parent or family member. As of Tuesday, there were more than 20,000 unaccompanied children — 4,228 in CBP custody and 16,045 in HHS care, according to preliminary daily numbers provided by DHS and HHS.
On the call, administration officials expressed optimism that they are making progress in moving children out of CBP custody — which is widely considered inadequate for the care of a child — and into HHS's custody. The officials said the 30-day average for numbers of children transferred out of CBP custody has increased from 276 children at the end of February to 507 at the end of March.
"We are moving in the right direction, but we know we have a lot of work ahead," one administration official said.
The officials also emphasized that Congress needs to take action to overhaul the existing U.S. immigration system. For decades, Congress has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“Congress really has to act,” another official said. “We really have to fix the system. If we don’t fix legal immigration, it doesn’t matter who is president. We’re going to run into this problem over and over and over again.”