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Apprehensions of undocumented migrants on the US border with Mexico soared 70 percent in March to 172,331, hitting the highest level in 15 years, data showed Thursday, in a mounting challenge for the administration of President Joe Biden.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported that the number of unaccompanied children they detained after crossing the border illegally, or trying to sneak through official entry ports, doubled in March from February to 18,890.
And the number of migrants showing up as part of families with small children jumped from under 20,000 in February to more than 53,000 last March,.
In all the total number of apprehensions along the 2,000 mile (3,200 kilometer) southern border was five times that of March 2020, a stunning rise that officials and migrants say was sparked by increased poverty and violence in Central America as well as Biden's promise of a more humane policy toward immigrants.
Biden's critics characterize the situation as a "crisis" with the CBP, the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies overwhelmed.
Most of the migrants were from Mexico and the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, many arriving in large groups.
CBP blamed the surge on "violence, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America."
"This is not new... Encounters have continued to increase since April 2020," acting CBP commissioner Troy Miller said in a statement.
- Political headache -
The agency said nearly 104,000 of the border crossers were expelled back into Mexico, most of them single adults, under rules based on Covid-19 pandemic protections.
Reversing the policy of his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden is allowing unaccompanied children to stay and be united with relatives living inside the United States.
And while some family groups are pushed back into Mexico, at least 35,000 who crossed the border in southeast Texas are being allowed to stay, in part because the Mexican state opposite, Tamaulipas, has refused to take them back.
The issue has posed one of the toughest headaches politically and socially for Biden, who came into office in January promising a more humane policy after Trump's unforgiving crackdown.
Photographs and video footage show massively overcrowded shelters in the border region for the unaccompanied children.
As of Wednesday there were more than 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children in government custody -- 4,228 in CBP hands, and 16,045 with HHS, which receives them from the Border Patrol.
The Washington Post reported that HHS is spending $60 million a week to care for the children.
They have been arriving much faster than either agency has been able to process and resettle them. HHS has set up holding facilities for the children on military bases, oil industry housing and other sites, and is searching for more capacity.
Biden administration officials told reporters Wednesday that the surge was temporary, and blamed the Trump administration for wrecking government immigration infrastructure.
- 'Unsustainable' -
"Nobody should have the expectation that this is going to be solved overnight," said a senior administration official who would not be identified.
"The president has a plan," the official said. "We have to build back the system."
Biden has predicted a downturn in the coming months, but previous experience suggests the surge could continue until the border area weather gets very hot in May or June.
Biden has stressed that the long-term solution is to strengthen the economies and security in the countries most of the migrants hail from, and designated Vice President Kamala Harris to handle that part of the issue.
But Republicans accuse the administration of inaction.
"Five times the number of border crossings from last March, yet President Biden has no viable plan and VP Harris hasn’t even visited the border," said Republican Senator Tom Cotton on Twitter.
"The Biden Border Crisis is getting worse each day."
Even Democrats concede that the current situation can't go on. Veronica Escobar, a US Representative from El Paso, described the situation as "unsustainable.
But she added: "They are doing everything they can to make sure that unaccompanied minors are provided for as best possible until they get into the arms of their family members."