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Rate Of Unaccompanied Minors Entering The U.S. Soared In February

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have been here before. Thousands of unaccompanied children are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border without a parent or legal guardian. They are part of a sharp increase in unauthorized border crossings - the most since 2019.

NPR's John Burnett covers immigration and joins us now. Good morning, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: The Biden administration put out some new numbers yesterday. What do they tell us about the situation at the southern border right now?

BURNETT: Yeah, it's news the administration didn't want to hear. The numbers of migrants coming across the border continues to grow. It's a trend that began a year ago, but it's picked up under Biden's presidency. The Border Patrol encountered more than 100,000 people last month. That's nearly a 30% jump over January, and it's almost triple the numbers from a year ago when former President Trump had just about locked down the border. Some of the increase is explainable by all the single adults who try to get in again and again. Under COVID health rules, they get caught. They're quickly expelled. They turn right around and try again. But it's those immigrant kids, mostly teenagers, are what really worries Customs and Border Protection.

MARTIN: Tell us about them, those immigrant children who are coming alone.

BURNETT: Well, it's the fastest-growing group of border crossers. Agents are apprehending nearly 350 a day. That number has jumped 80% in the last month. According to my sources, Border Patrol is holding about 3,000 children. And those barebones cells meant for adults, these are the same infamous cages that Trump was blasted for. And they're holding some of them well past the court-ordered limit of three days for children in detention. Once again, they're stuck in Border Patrol stations because there's not enough room in the children's shelters run by HHS - Health and Human Services. It's a familiar bottleneck. The new acting CBP commissioner is Troy Miller. He told reporters yesterday his agency is struggling with all the kids in custody.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TROY MILLER: As far as HHS, you know, we continue to work with them to move children out of our custody as quickly as we can. And you know, we need to move them all quicker.

MARTIN: So - I mean, John, you've covered these surges before. You've covered the border for a long time. Let's talk about the timing of all this. Why are all these young people coming right now?

BURNETT: Well, Rachel, you know, it happened under Obama. It happened under Trump. Now it's happening again under Biden. And really, nothing has changed in those source countries. Conditions are terrible in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. For teenagers, there's no decent paying work. Street gangs are forcibly recruiting boys and assaulting girls. So parents send their kids north with the name and phone number of a brother, aunt or cousin living in the States. When Biden took office, he reopened the border to these minors traveling alone and to other asylum-seekers who'd been waiting in Mexico. Let's hear from Wendy Young. She's president of Kids In Need Of Defense, which advocates for immigrant children.

WENDY YOUNG: We have certainly heard that the numbers are climbing, and this is primarily the result of the lifting of restrictions at the border that were put in place by the Trump administration. So there's a pent-up demand, and unaccompanied children had been pushed back for months into Mexico and forced to wait.

MARTIN: But when these kinds of policies are rolled back or changes happen, I mean, there is a surge. It's happened time and again. So couldn't the Biden administration have predicted this and been better prepared?

BURNETT: Yeah. That's a great question, Rachel. The child shelter network run by HHS was unprepared. There's only one emergency influx facility down in South Texas with about a thousand beds, and it's days away from being full. So the government is scrambling to open up more space at permanent shelters around the country and having to scrap its earlier COVID rules that had lowered the capacity at these shelters. Now they're going to fill them up.

But all these young migrants overwhelming the border has fed criticism by conservatives that Biden has just opened the gates and brought on a humanitarian crisis. To that critique, Biden's people keep having press conferences to discourage irregular border crossings, but the migrants keep coming.

MARTIN: NPR's John Burnett, thank you.

BURNETT: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.