Federal agents arrested a record number of migrant families who crossed the southern border illegally in August, two officials with preliminary data said, highlighting the Biden administration’s most prominent immigration challenge after rolling out new border policies this spring.
The roughly 91,000 migrants who crossed together as families exceeded the 84,486 such crossings recorded in May 2019, the height of the border crisis during the Trump administration.
While the government has been removing families who crossed the border illegally at a higher pace, many are released into the country temporarily to face immigration court proceedings and rely on local communities to provide shelter and other support, stretching many states’ and cities’ resources. The Biden administration ended the practice of detaining migrant families in 2021 for humanitarian reasons.
The number of migrant families crossing between official ports of entry started to rise in July, and illegal crossings overall in August increased from the previous month to about 177,000. There was a notable dip in June after new border measures were put in place following the expiration of Title 42, a public health order that allowed the Biden administration to rapidly expel migrants, but that drop appears to have been temporary. Illegal crossings increased by 33 percent between June and July and went up another 33 percent in August. The Washington Post earlier reported the preliminary data on the August numbers.
The increase in migrant families is a concerning development for Biden administration officials, as families have always been the hardest migrants to deport. Even when family detention centers were in use, the government was limited in how long it could detain them. Often, the time it took to screen families for asylum eligibility exceeded that limit, which meant that most families were released from detention into communities. And some in the Biden administration viewed it as a cruel practice to then deport the families even as they posed no security threat.
The rise in border numbers comes at an especially critical time for President Biden as the election campaign season moves into full swing. Republicans have hammered Mr. Biden on immigration, particularly as illegal border crossings reached record levels during his time in office. Republicans point to these spikes as evidence of failed border security policies, even as the influx is part of a global trend of people fleeing inhumane conditions in their home countries.
Biden administration officials are also concerned with an increase in migrant children crossing the border without a parent or guardian. An average of 377 migrant children a day crossed the border alone in August compared to a daily average of 270 in July, according to data maintained by the Health and Human Services Department, which provides shelter and care for the children until they are placed with a family member or other sponsor.
With 10,140 children in its shelters as of Friday, the department said in a statement that “additional capacity is urgently needed to manage the increasing numbers of unaccompanied children.”
A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman said the increases in illegal crossings in July and August were normal.
“As with every year, the U.S. is seeing ebbs and flows of migrants arriving fueled by seasonal trends and the efforts of smugglers to use disinformation to prey on vulnerable migrants,” the spokeswoman, Erin Heeter, said in a statement.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, which hold single adult migrants, are also filling up, with 32,743 in custody as of Aug. 31. The agency has funding for a total of 34,000 beds.
In May, ICE rolled out new measures for migrant families seeking asylum who cross the border illegally and are placed in swift deportation proceedings pending evaluations of their asylum claims. This involves placing a monitoring device on a family member and setting a curfew to enable tracking by immigration officials.
While the new process is considered more humane than detaining families for weeks, some immigration advocates have been critical, saying that families seeking asylum are rushed through their interviews so quickly that they have no time to consult with a lawyer and lose the chance to apply for refuge.
The Biden administration has grappled with how to manage migrant families who cross the border illegally. In addition to new enforcement measures, the government created new legal pathways for migrants from certain countries with growing humanitarian crises. It also created a process for migrants to register for an appointment at an official port of entry, a much safer way to get to the United States compared to swimming across the Rio Grande.
But there have been long waits for these appointments.
Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, the director of the Sidewalk School, a nonprofit organization that assists asylum seekers, said some families who have been waiting months to secure appointments while staying in tents along the Mexico border have decided to take their chances crossing illegally.
In many cases, families were hearing that other migrant families who crossed illegally were being allowed to stay in the United States and seek asylum, Ms. Rangel-Samponaro said.
“You have to make a choice: Do I stay here in imminent danger?” Ms. Rangel-Samponaro said. “Or do I go ahead and cross for me and my child?”