WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A top U.S. border official said on Tuesday he expects more than a million migrants will arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border this year, a sign of a growing humanitarian challenge for President Joe Biden on the southwest border.
If the figures reach 1 million, it could mirror a similar increase in border crossings in 2019 during Donald Trump’s presidency, when nearly 978,000 migrants were taken into custody.
Border Patrol arrested about 100,000 migrants in February, the most in a month since mid-2019. More migrants typically cross between April and June, Raul Ortiz, deputy chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, told reporters.
“We’re already starting to see some higher days of 6,000-plus apprehensions,” Ortiz said. “So I fully expect our border patrol agents to encounter over a million people this year.”
The Biden administration allowed several reporters to interview border officials and tour a crowded migrant processing facility in Donna, Texas, on Tuesday following growing demands from news outlets for more access. The footage was shared with Reuters and other outlets.
The Donna facility is holding 4,100 migrants, most of whom are unaccompanied minors, according to a pool report, four times its pre-COVID capacity.
More than 2,000 unaccompanied migrant children have been held there for longer than a legal limit of 72 hours, Border Patrol official Oscar Escamilla said. Of those, 39 children had been stuck in the tent facility for more than 15 days as they await placement in a shelter overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s out of my hands,” he told reporters. “For whatever reason, they have fallen through the system or through the cracks.”
The HHS refugee office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tens of thousands of Central American migrants have trekked to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months. The increase is driven by poor economic conditions in the region, the effects of devastating hurricanes last year, and hope among migrants that they will be allowed to remain in the United States as Biden reverses some of Trump’s restrictive immigration policies.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a written statement that federal officials were “working around the clock” to quickly move children out of the packed border facilities.
During the tour of the Donna facility, reporters visited an area for young children, who sat inside a playpen, used coloring books and watched a movie.
The children, as young as 3 years old, also sleep in the area, Escamilla said, since other areas for unaccompanied children were too crowded.
Escamilla said one young girl told him she did not know the U.S. state to which she was traveling, just that “it snows there.” He said another girl had lost the phone number of a contact in the United States.
In video footage from inside the facility, children were crowded into plastic-walled “pods,” laying on floor mats and covered with Mylar blankets. Other footage showed shelves stocked with snack bars, diapers and baby bottles.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Richard Chang)