Number of Unaccompanied Children Crossing Border Into U.S. Increased 63 Percent in February

Since the Biden administration took office on January 20, the U.S.-Mexico border has been flooded with Central American migrants who are presumably hopeful the new president will be a lot more welcoming than the last.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border increased 63 percent in February. The agency reported 9,297 arrivals of these minors last month. A CBP official confirmed to Newsweek that this number is up 96 percent from the same time last year.

The surge of migrants is reaching a 20-year high, and the historic numbers has left President Joe Biden grappling with the first immigration test of his presidency.

During his first days in office, Biden vowed to reverse his predecessor's hard-line border policies. Most notably, the new president put an end to former President Donald Trump's policy of expelling unaccompanied migrant children without allowing them to request humanitarian refuge in the U.S.

Instead, Biden's administration has promised to uphold safeguards in the law that require the government to transfer most of these children to shelters while they request asylum or other forms of relief to stay in the U.S.

Under immigration law, the government cannot deport children as quickly as migrant adults or families, who are mostly sent back to Mexico as a result of coronavirus regulations. Because of the additional danger migrant children face, such as an abusive parent, they must be given the opportunity to apply for asylum.

However, the growing number of minors arriving at the southern border has become a challenge for both his administration, which is trying to uphold the policy decision, and Border Patrol agents, who are rushing to find needed resources.

On Tuesday, CBS News reported that more than 13,000 unaccompanied migrant children were in U.S. custody. The mass of minors has overwhelmed Border Patrol facilities, which have been scrambling to find beds and shelter, especially since the shelters had been operating at reduced capacity because of the pandemic.

Migrant Children
Border Patrol agents apprehend a group of migrants near downtown El Paso, Texas, following a congressional delegation's visit on March 15. The number of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border rose 63 percent last month. Justin Hamel/AFP

Child migrants range in age from toddlers to teenagers, with many fleeing gang threats and persecution or leaving poverty-stricken communities reeling from hurricane destruction that decimated homes last year.

Many young children often travel to the border with older siblings or other relatives who are also minors. Most children who cross into the U.S. are male, and nearly half of all the unaccompanied minors arrived in 2020 from Guatemala, where gang-related violence has become pervasive.

According to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, about 80 percent of the unaccompanied minors have relatives in the U.S. and 40 percent have a parent.

Mayorkas wrote a detailed statement on Tuesday addressing the gravity of the border situation, noting that agents were encountering children as young as 6 and that officers have been unable to meet in the 72-hour legal time frame to transfer them to the refugee office.

He announced that he has deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help house migrant youth and that his department was in the process of setting up new facilities for these children.

"I came to this country as an infant, brought by parents who understood the hope and promise of America. Today, young children are arriving at our border with that same hope," Mayorkas, an immigrant from Cuba, said in the statement. "We can do this."

While he reiterated that the U.S. would stick to Biden's commitment and not turn back unaccompanied children, Mayorkas made it clear that adult immigrants and families with minors would continue to be expelled because of the public health regulations in place.

This story was updated at 12:27 p.m. with a comment from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.