Thousands of migrant children are trying to enter the US, renewing a fight in Washington. What's going on at the Mexico border?

Rebecca Morin
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's administration faces a growing issue at the U.S.-Mexican border, where an increasing number of migrant children seeking asylum are detained. 

Though the White House has maintained the border is closed, migrant children are let in rather than being turned awaybecause officials said it would be too dangerous for them to make their journey back to their home countries on their own. 

Biden administration officials and lawmakers on both sides are grappling with how to respond to the situation at the border.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement Tuesday “the situation at the southwest border is difficult."

“We are working around the clock to manage it, and we will continue to do so," he said. "That is our job."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Sunday called the situation a “humanitarian crisis," a label the Biden administration has avoided. Republicans on Capitol Hill label the surge of migrant children as “Biden’s border crisis.”

Mayorkas:DHS chief Mayorkas avoids calling migrants at border a 'crisis' when pressed during House hearing

Here's why we're seeing an increase number of children seeking asylum at the border and what is being done about it:

Is there a surge of migrants at the border?

The number of unaccompanied migrant children seeking asylum at the nation’s southern border began rising late last year, before Biden was inaugurated as president. 

As of Sunday morning, more than 4,200 unaccompanied migrant children were being held in short-term holding facilities, according to CBS News. Of those, 3,000 had been there longer than 72 hours. Migrant children are supposed to be moved from the short-term facilities within 72 hours. The facilities are jail-like and not suited for long-term containment.

Mayorkas noted Tuesday the United States is on “pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports “encounters,” in addition to apprehensions. Therefore, the numbers include repeated crossings by single individuals. For example, in El Paso, Texas, the average for one adult is 10 crossings.

“The administration has opened no legal way for people to come into the United States so this is going to continue to happen,” said Linda Rivas, executive director for the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which provides pro bono legal assistance in El Paso. “We would love to see an end to Title 42 but we could also just simply reopen the ports and make them functional again and allow asylum seekers to present themselves at the port. It’s taking so long.”

White House: Change in administration may be driving surge

The Biden administration said it's seeing more migrants being held because of the change of rhetoric from President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies.

“Surges tend to respond to hope, and there was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of ... pent-up demand,” Roberta Jacobson, special assistant to the president and coordinator for the southern border, said last week during a White House press briefing. “I certainly think that the idea that a more humane policy would be in place may have driven people to make that decision.”

In his first weeks in office, Biden stopped construction on a border wall and began unwinding several of Trump’s policies, such as stopping the Migrant Protection Protocol, which forced migrants to wait for U.S. immigration hearings in Mexico.

The Biden administration has kept one key policy in place from the Trump administration, Title 42, which allows the Border Patrol to expel undocumented migrants to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities.

More:As Biden faces surge of migrant children, Republicans criticize White House for border crisis

Springtime, Central America turmoil may also be contributing

“Hope” isn’t the only factor driving migrants to the border. Experts said the increased numbers at the border follow a trend that happens every spring.

Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles' Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, said immigration patterns are “cyclical,” and historically, the United States has seen a rise in migrants seeking asylum during the springtime. He noted it’s largely because it’s the end of the rainy season.

“A lot of what we're seeing now is part of a cyclical phenomenon around this time of year, people make the decision to migrate,” he said.

Mayorkas said in a statement Tuesday that the United States experienced surges of migrants in 2019 and 2014.

Hinojosa-Ojeda said some of the migrants held by the United States  waited in Mexican border towns for years because of Trump policies, including the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico.”

More:GOP flags migrant children at border in criticism of Joe Biden, whose immigration plan faces resistance

“We're basically sopping up a pent-up demand that's been kept in Mexico,” Hinojosa-Ojeda said. 

There have been other reasons over the past several years as to why migrants have come to the U.S.-Mexican border to seek asylum, including economic hardships, gang violence and the effects of climate change.

Two hurricanes, Eta and Iota, hit Central America last November, ravaging Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Belize. Hundreds of thousands were left without homesand displaced.

Individuals in several of those countries also had to deal with political and economic unrest.

What does the White House tell migrants?

Biden and his administration asked migrants seeking asylum to not make the journey to the USA right now.

In an interview with ABC News on Tuesday, Biden said "we're sending back people" who cross the border.

"I can say quite clearly, don't come over ... don't leave your city or town or community," Biden said.

In El Paso, the Border Patrol expels dozens of unauthorized migrants each day to Juarez just south of the border, including single adults and families. They are dropped at the top of the Paso del Norte bridge, then walk to Mexico.

President Biden tells potential migrants:'Don't come' to the USA amid surge at southern border

Mayorkas and Jacobson said it’s going to take time for the Biden administration to set up a pathway to legalization, and until there is a legal pathway, migrants should avoid trying to seek asylum.

As part of Biden’s comprehensive immigration bill, the administration wants funding to set up facilities in Central America, so individuals could apply for asylum in their home country to avoid making the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexican border.

The border is closed, so why are migrants being let in?

The White House reiterated the border is closed, Mayorkas again saying so Wednesday.

"La frontera está cerrada," Jacobson said last week at a news briefing, translating to "The border is closed."

But the Biden administration is not turning away migrant children. Some children present themselves at the border alone; others come with a relative or older sibling.

"The president and our administration has made a decision that the way to humanely approach immigration is to allow for unaccompanied minors to come and be treated with humanity and be in a safe place while we're trying to get them into new homes," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing last week.

"We made a policy decision because we felt it was the humane approach," she said.

'Helping the country prosper':Undocumented immigrants pay billions in US taxes each year – and have been for decades

Under the Trump administration, unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico were never sent to Mexico under Title 42. Unaccompanied migrant children were put up in hotels and flown back to their home countries under the policy.

Biden Administration officials said Thursday there is also a small portion of families coming to the border who are not being turned away under Title 42. The officials said while the administration continues to expel families, there are certain limitations in terms of Mexico's capacity to take them, and at certain times and in certain areas, there have been instances when they have been unable to accept families with children of "tender years." 

In those cases, officials said the family is then processed as Title 8, meaning they are individuals who violated immigration law by entering the country between ports of entry. The family may make a credible fear claim at that time. The officials said the family will then be processed. They added there have been instances when families are processed and put directly into immigration proceedings in front of a judge.

Maribel E., who asked that her real name not be used, weeps as she holds her infant son in her arms after being expelled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Paso del Norte bridge after attempting to enter the U.S. without documentation on March 11, 2021. Behind the woman is commuter traffic heading north into El Paso, Texas.

What happens to the children once they get to the USA?

Some children are transferred to holding facilities. Children are supposed to be sent to temporary overflow facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The administration has faced issues in trying to quickly move young children out of the Border Patrol holding facilities. The issues are largely due to limited space in the HHS facilities under COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. The CDC updated those guidelines to return these facilities to full capacity.

Psaki said it takes longer for children to be moved to sponsors because the Biden administration is undertaking a thorough vetting process of sponsors. Many of the children seeking asylum have parents or family members in the USA.

More:At the US-Mexican border, some migrant families are taken in, others 'kicked out'

In an effort to speed up the vetting process, the Biden administration announced last Friday it terminated an agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and HHS that allowed certain information on prospective sponsors of unaccompanied children to be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Administration officials hoped the news would bring sponsors forward faster.

HHS and officials from the Office of Refugee Resettlement are sent to Border Patrol processing centers to vet sponsors of unaccompanied children more quickly. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is deployed for the next three months to help receive, shelter and transfer unaccompanied migrant children.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, toured a temporary holding facility in El Paso last week and said the “humanitarian investments” made by Congress in the previous administration are visible. Unaccompanied minors have access to clean clothes, hot meals, child-size tables and chairs and movies as they wait to be transferred into the custody of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“These were changes that we insisted upon during the Trump administration, but it’s clear this administration is going to act on them, and I hope accelerate them,” Escobar told the El Paso Times.

Some migrants still being turned away

Although children are being let in and matched with sponsors, other migrants are turned away under Title 42.

Border Patrol Sector Chief Gloria Chavez told the El Paso Times, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, that since March 8, “the El Paso Sector has been receiving a varying number of family units daily from the South Texas region,” and the agency’s “priority is to process them and expel them into Mexico under Title 42.”

“We work very closely with the government of Mexico, and they also have capacity issues that we have to consider; therefore, only a limited amount of families from the region and from South Texas can be expelled into Ciudad Juárez daily in coordination with Mexico Immigration officials,” Chavez said in an emailed statement.

“We are sending the message clearly in the region: Now is not the time to come,” Psaki said at a White House news briefing Monday.  “But also, we want to ensure that people are treated with humanity – who are children, who are unaccompanied children. That's who we are as a country, and so we are doing both.”

Who is to blame?

Democrats and Republicans have begun the finger-pointing as to who is responsible for the latest influx of migrants at the border.

“The prior administration completely dismantled the asylum system,” Mayorkas said Tuesday. “The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers. We have had to rebuild the entire system, including the policies and procedures required to administer the asylum laws that Congress passed long ago.”

Trump put in place a “zero-tolerance” policy that separated parents and children at the border. The Trump administration also implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols to keep asylum seekers in Mexico while they await their court hearing.

Republicans blame Biden’s administration.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who visited the border in El Paso with 12 other GOP lawmakers Monday, said the Biden administration overturning some of Trump’s policies contributed to the increase of migrants seeking asylum.

Contributing: Lauren Villagran, El Paso Times

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_