Number of kids alone at border hits all-time high in March
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government picked up nearly 19,000 children traveling alone across the Mexican border in March, authorities said today, the largest monthly number ever recorded and a major test for President Joe Biden as he reverses many of his predecessor’s hardline immigration tactics.
A complex mix of factors in the United States and Central America drove the increase. It has coincided with the Biden administration’s decision to exempt unaccompanied children from pandemic-related powers to immediately expel most people from the country without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum. Children are instead released to “sponsors” in the U.S., usually parents or close relatives, while being allowed to pursue their cases in heavily backlogged immigration courts.
The Border Patrol encountered 18,663 unaccompanied children in March, well above previous highs of 11,475 in May 2019 and 10,620 in June 2014. The agency started publishing the numbers in 2009. Before then, adults made up the vast majority of those crossing the border.
March’s count was roughly double those encountered by the Border Patrol in February and more than five times the number in March 2020.
The huge increase in children traveling alone — some as young as 3 — and families has severely strained border holding facilities, which aren’t allowed to hold people for more than three days but often do. It’s left the government scrambling to find space and hire staff to care for children longer term until they can be placed with sponsors.
For many, a hurricane that hit Central America in November added urgency to endemic poverty and violence that have led people to flee for decades. Changes in U.S. policy under Biden also have guided their decisions, whether real or rumored.
Hermelindo Ak, a Guatemalan corn grower who barely makes enough to feed his family, was expelled to Mexico from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley with his 17-year-old son. Ak decided to send his son alone for a second attempt after learning unaccompanied children can stay in the U.S. Ak, 40, said he would return to family in Guatemala after selling his house to pay smugglers. The plan was for his oldest son to live with relatives in the U.S.
“I didn’t want to leave him alone,” Ak said last week in the Mexican border city of Reynosa. “Necessity obligates us.”
Amid the growing numbers, more than 4,000 people at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding facility have been jammed into a space designed for 250 at a tent complex in Donna, Texas. They lay inches apart on mats on the floor with foil blankets.