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Border & Immigration

U.S. Encounters An 'Unprecedented' Number Of Migrants. DHS Says 'It's Complicated'

The head of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, says U.S. authorities encountered migrants more than 212,000 on the U.S.-Mexico border in July — an "unprecedented number."
The head of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, says U.S. authorities encountered migrants more than 212,000 on the U.S.-Mexico border in July — an "unprecedented number."

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says immigration authorities are encountering an "unprecedented number of migrants" at the southern border.

Authorities encountered migrants more than 212,000 times in July, according to official numbers released Thursday — including nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children, surpassing the monthly record set in March.

In a visit to Brownsville, Texas, Mayorkas acknowledged the problem that large numbers of migrants are creating for local communities.

"The situation at the border is one of the toughest challenges we face," he said at a press conference. "It is complicated, changing and involves vulnerable people at a time of a global pandemic."

Mayorkas said that a rising number of migrants are testing positive for COVID-19. But he pushed back on claims that migrants are driving the dramatic rise in cases across the south.

"The rate of positivity is at or lower than the rates in our local border communities," Mayorkas said. "We are building new capacity to address the situation, and we are doing so as rapidly as possible. The extent of the challenge should not be overstated. But nor should our ability to meet it."

The combination of rising COVID-19 rates and rising numbers of migrants is straining resources up and down the border — particularly in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, which has seen the biggest increase of any sector.

The U.S. Border Patrol was forced to hold migrants for processing under the Anzalduas International Bridge because its regular facilities were overcrowded, a spokesman said. The nearby city of McAllen, Texas opened a tent encampment last week to care for recently-released migrants who have tested positive for COVID-19.

It's unusual for crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border to rise from June to July. Migration typically peaks in the spring, and then declines in the summer as the hotter weather sets in. Republican critics blame the Biden administration and its immigration policies for the unusual summer spike in the numbers.

"This is about what our policies are on our borders," said Mark Morgan, the former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the Trump administration, who's now a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"If you apply effective consequences .... I promise you, the flow will go down," he said.

The Biden administration has tried to strike a balance between allowing the most vulnerable migrants to seek asylum in the U.S., while discouraging others from trying to cross the border.

DHS recently began using "expedited removal" to fly some migrants to southern Mexico. And the administration has extended a Trump administration public health order known as Title 42, which allows authorities to quickly expel migrants back to Mexico without allowing them to seek asylum — although the Biden administration has made an exception for unaccompanied children and many families crossing the border.

Title 42 has also made it harder to compare the current situation at the border with the past, immigration authorities say.

The number of "encounters" is higher than the actual number of migrants crossing the border, Mayorkas said, because many of those migrants are crossing multiple times in the same month without penalty, and get counted more than once. He put the number of "unique individuals" encountered in July at 154,288 — still a big number, but more in line with other recent peaks in migration.

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