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By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. border officials are preparing for as many as 9,000 border arrests per day by the spring, according to two Department of Homeland Security officials, which would be significantly larger than last year's peak and could cause a headache for the Democratic administration ahead of midterm elections.
The number is a "worst-case scenario," said one of the officials, both of whom requested anonymity to discuss internal planning.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden grappled with a record-breaking 1.7 million border arrests last fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. In July 2021 - the peak of last year's rise - daily migrant arrests averaged about 6,500, according to government statistics.
The nearly unprecedented https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-IMMIGRATION/BORDER/byvrjobmjve number of arrests, which included many repeat crossers, caused backups of unaccompanied children in crowded border patrol stations and fueled Republican criticism of the Democratic president's approach to border security. Biden's predecessor, Republican President Donald Trump, made cracking down on immigration a central plank of his presidency.
The rise in migration has happened despite the Biden administration keeping in place a Trump-era order that allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel most migrants caught at the border during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans are expected to make the border a major campaign theme in the run-up to November midterm elections that will decide control of the U.S. Congress.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesperson said the agency "stands ready to address any potential increase in migrant encounters," while at the same time "managing a fair and orderly immigration system."
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden's top immigration official, fielded criticism from individual border patrol agents during a visit on Wednesday to Yuma, Arizona, according to four current and former agents and an audio recording posted online by the conservative website Townhall.
Some agents have grown frustrated with Biden's approach to enforcement and say it has hurt morale.
DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa said in statement that Mayorkas "welcomes candor during these conversations, and appreciates and respects the opinions of each member of the CBP workforce."
In Yuma, Reuters witnessed hundreds of migrants walking through a gap in the border barrier and turning themselves in to ask for asylum over the weekend. The migrants said they were from Venezuela, Cuba, and other Latin American countries, as well as farther away places.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Rosalba O'Brien)