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National

March Saw Record-Breaking Numbers At The U.S.-Mexico Border

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The number of migrant children arriving at the southern border is setting records. Almost 19,000 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border in March. That is the most ever in a single month. The number of total apprehensions at the border rose as well to more than 170,000. That is the highest monthly total in at least 15 years. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us now. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So these numbers - I mean, they're really hard to wrap your brain around. Can you just put them in context for us?

ROSE: Well, sure. The Biden administration has tried to portray this as a normal seasonal cycle. And it's true that migration numbers tend to peak in the spring, but these numbers are not typical. To find the last month with this many apprehensions, you have to go all the way back to March of 2006, although I should note that this is not a perfect comparison because single adults today are being quickly expelled from the U.S. under a public health order. Immigration officials say many of these so-called encounters, almost a third, are people who are crossing more than once. And so many are probably getting counted more than once, too. But even with that caveat, this is a very big number.

CHANG: Well, I want to turn to the number of children - something like 18,900 unaccompanied minors. Where are they even staying? Like, what is happening to them?

ROSE: Yeah. It's an astonishing number, and it's twice the number of unaccompanied children who came just last month. And it's really overwhelming the systems that are in place to handle unaccompanied children. By law, they're supposed to be moved quickly out of jail like facilities near the border and into the custody of Health and Human Services until HHS can place them with sponsors in the U.S. who are usually a parent or a family member.

But that's not happening fast enough, so thousands of kids and families are jammed into these overcrowded facilities near the border, facilities that are stretched beyond thin, in the words of the independent monitors who visited them last month. HHS has been adding thousands of emergency shelter beds to get children out of those border facilities. But these unaccompanied children are just arriving faster than HHS can add beds, so it is a real bottleneck.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, has the Biden administration said much about these numbers today?

ROSE: The Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, did visit the border today for the second time in a month, but he did not speak to the media. Mayorkas did meet with local elected officials and nonprofit leaders in El Paso, including Democratic Representative Veronica Escobar. Here is some of what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VERONICA ESCOBAR: If you're one of my colleagues and you think if we can just secure the border enough, build big enough walls and create enough deterrents, we've solved the issue, no. It's - that - it's a myth.

ROSE: Escobar and the Biden administration say the solution to this problem has to start with root causes that are driving this migration in the first place, which is basically growing desperation, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala - countries that were struggling with basic security and stability even before they were hit by a pair of devastating hurricanes last year.

CHANG: Right. Well, critics of the Biden administration have been calling the situation a, quote, "crisis" for weeks now. So I'm curious. What's been their reaction to these latest numbers?

ROSE: Well, GOP lawmakers have made several trips to the border to highlight the situation there, including another congressional delegation today. Here's Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the minority whip, speaking on "Fox And Friends" today.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

STEVE SCALISE: It is beyond a disaster what they've done not only to these border towns. The mayors - you hear them, Democrat and Republican, expressing outrage over what President Biden created. Joe Biden created this crisis.

ROSE: The Biden administration denies that. First of all, they don't use the word crisis. And they have said very publicly to migrants, don't come. The border is not open. But clearly that message is not persuading everybody.

CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.