The number of immigrants apprehended along the southern border rose to levels not seen in nearly 20 years. The sharpest increase in apprehensions came from February to March, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
“It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen.”
Border patrol agent and a vice president with the National Border Patrol Council, Chris Cabrera, said he’s never experienced such rapid increases in apprehensions during his 19-year career.
“It’s increasing by leaps and bounds,” said Cabrera. “It’s insane.”
According to CBP data, the number of immigrants apprehended along the southern border jumped from 96,974 in February to 168,195 in March. The last time single-month apprehensions were that high was in March of 2001. CBP data also showed that from February to March, a 174% increase in the number of family units caught along the border, and a 101% increase in unaccompanied children.
CBP data shows the vast majority of families and unaccompanied children caught illegally crossing the border during this time are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The majority of single adults caught along the border are from Mexico, according to CBP data.
CBP data also shows the number of immigrants with criminal records caught crossing the border this year has already surpassed last year’s numbers. CBP officials report 5,018 immigrants with criminal records have been caught since October, the beginning of the fiscal year. The fiscal year 2020 data shows a total of 2,438 immigrants with criminal records were caught crossing the border.
You can see the demographic breakdowns here and below is a monthly breakdown of apprehensions since the year 2000.
Large groups are common
Border Patrol agents said they now frequently encounter large groups of 100 or more immigrants crossing the border at the same time.
“When we have that group of 100-plus, or those groups of 100-plus, it takes a lot of time for agents to intake them and process and then move them to facilities,” said Border Patrol agent Jesse Moreno.
Border patrol announced this week a total of 44 groups of 100 or more immigrants have been caught crossing the border just in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas since the beginning of the year.
“The three groups encountered on Monday morning and Tuesday evening totaled 320 migrants. The groups consisted of 229 family members, 86 unaccompanied children, and five single adults. The nationalities of those in the groups included; Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Romania, Ecuador, Venezuela, and the United Kingdom,” read a Customs and Border Protection news release.
When KPRC 2 Investigates visited the area last week, we saw dozens of immigrants emerge from the bushes in the town of La Joya, about 23 miles west of McAllen. Most were family units and unaccompanied children.
“We want a better future for our children,” said Griselda Ramos.
Ramos said it took her and her 1-year-old daughter a month to make it from Honduras to Texas. She said smugglers got them across the border.
“The situation in Honduras is very difficult. There is a lot of crime and because of COVID-19, it’s hard to find a job,” said Ramos.
Cabrera said the large groups are also a tactic by criminal organizations trying to overwhelm border patrol agents.
“You have a group of 70 or 80 turning themselves in, in two locations, and in the middle and on the sides there are groups of 30 or 40 running from you at the same time,” said Cabrera.
People are used as pawns
Border patrol agents said smuggling operations are taking full advantage of the current situation along the border.
When near the town of Roma, KPRC 2 Investigates visited a spot along the river used frequently by smugglers moving people into the U.S. Discarded children’s toys, baby carriers, clothes, smashed cell phones, clothes, water bottles and other pieces of trash littered the banks of the Rio Grande river.
Among the debris, we also noticed dozens of plastic wristbands in all different colors. Border patrol officials said the smuggling operations are now using the bands to help keep track of which person is being moved by which group and who has paid their smuggling fee.
“The smuggling operations are using these people as pawns,” said Cabrera.
During our visit to this part of the border, we saw some of the people smuggled through this area arrested while trying to make their way out of town. Border patrol agents also said they’ve found numerous stash houses filled with immigrants waiting to be moved farther north.
“We have found stash houses with 70 to 80 people without water, without electricity, without a way to contact their family,” said Moreno.
Moreno said many times smuggling organizations will torture those immigrants whose families can’t pay the fee.
Congressman Henry Cuellar, (D) Laredo, has been critical of what is happening along the border.
“If we don’t show any consequence, then they’re going to keep coming,” said Cuellar.
Cuellar is talking about the thousands of Central American families released into the U.S. with ‘Notices to Appear’ in immigration court. KPRC 2 has seen these releases firsthand at both the McAllen and Brownsville bus stations.
Cuellar said the normal “push” factors of crime, poverty, corruption and national disasters have been heightened this year by a “pull” factor. Cuellar argues many see President Joe Biden’s ending of the “Remain in Mexico” program and promises of overhauling our immigration system as a signal they have a better chance at being allowed to remain in the U.S. than they did under President Donald Trump.
“They see what’s happening at the border as a speed bump, and the more you let in without any consequences, the more that are going to continue coming,” said Cuellar.
Cuellar said he is also concerned about the number of immigrants caught crossing the border who are released without “Notices to Appear.” Cuellar said he’s learned many immigrants were released after agents filled out I-385 forms, which federal records show is an “Alien Booking Record or booking card.”
“I asked them what is the latest numbers of the 385s, which is when you let people go without a Notice to Appear, which is really on an honor system. It was almost 15,000 people,” said Cuellar.
Cuellar said the use of the forms helps speed up the processing of immigrants because detention centers are overcrowded. KPRC 2 reached out to Customs and Border Protection officials regarding the use of 385 forms and has not yet received a response.
Cuellar said he is working with his Republican counterparts on legislation that would attack this problem on several fronts, including putting more pressure on Mexico and Central American countries to stop immigrants from reaching our border. However, he said the political debate over solving this crisis is moving slowly.
“If you talk to a Republican, he or she will only talk about the pull factors. If you talk to a Democrat, he will only, he or she will only talk about the push factors,” said Cuellar.
Agents like Cabrera worry this gridlock, and still no border visit from President Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris, means no solution is imminent.
“I think if they’re genuinely concerned about what’s going on, then they need to come down and see it,” said Cabrera.
The federal government has been expelling hundreds of thousands of single adults and some family units caught crossing the border under a pandemic-related law known as Title 42. This law allows our government to expel someone back to the country where they last transited, citing high infection rates from that country. However, border patrol officials said Mexico is pushing back and not accepting Central American families with children who are 7 years old or younger.
You can read more about Title 42 expulsions here.