WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
12 Mar 2021 | News

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Border Patrol Facilities Filling with Unaccompanied Children

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past border updates here.

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Border Patrol facilities filling with unaccompanied children

Numbers of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border rose in February to their highest level since May of 2019. Border Patrol apprehended 9,297 kids without adult accompaniment, up from 5,694 in January, while another 160 presented themselves at border ports of entry.

Media outlets with which CBP has shared preliminary March data, like CBS News, report that 3,500 more children were taken into U.S. custody during the first nine days of this month. Over the previous 21 days, CNN reported on March 10, U.S. border authorities had encountered an average of 435 unaccompanied kids per day, up from a 21-day average of 340 per day a week earlier.

Of the 9,297 unaccompanied kids apprehended in February, 42 percent were from Guatemala, 28 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 3 percent from all other countries.

Download a packet of infographics at bit.ly/wola_border

The rate of increase of unaccompanied child arrivals is “unprecedented,” according to “veteran” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials cited in the Washington Post, who add that the influx has “the potential to be the largest in decades,” surpassing prior “waves” of unaccompanied children in 2014, 2016, and 2019. Indeed, of the 114 months for which WOLA has official data going back to October 2011, February 2021 was the fourth-heaviest month for apprehensions of unaccompanied children—and numbers tend to increase during the spring.

The increase isn’t made up entirely of children who fled Central America recently. The Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum, which included rapidly expelling unaccompanied children under a pandemic border-closure policy between March and November 2020, bottled up many who otherwise would have migrated last year. “These are kids who’ve been waiting at the border, in some cases for more than a year,” Jennifer Podkul of Kids in Need of Defense told the New Yorker. The Biden administration is still expelling most migrants—including asylum seekers—under the pandemic order, but it has refused to expel unaccompanied children.

A 2008 law requires that CBP and its Border Patrol agency must turn all unaccompanied minor migrants from non-contiguous countries (that means, other than Mexico) over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS), which maintains a network of shelters around the country. ORR then endeavors to get the kids out of the shelters as quickly as possible, turning them over to relatives living in the United States (in 90 percent of cases) or other sponsors. Most non-Mexican children who arrive unaccompanied, then, seek to be apprehended after crossing the border.

Eventually, in a process slowed by backlogs, the children go to immigration court to seek asylum or other protection. Citing DHS statistics, the Washington Post reports that 52 percent of the 290,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border since 2014 still have cases pending. 28 percent have been granted humanitarian protection, 16 percent have been ordered to leave but it’s unclear whether they did, and 4.3 percent have been deported.

The ORR shelter system is near capacity right now, which means that Border Patrol—which must release the children to ORR within 72 hours—often has nowhere to put them. By March 8, the number of children in Border Patrol stations and detention facilities had risen to 3,250. Nearly 1,400 had been waiting in these facilities—austere holding cells designed for adult males—for more than the legal guideline of 72 hours. Of the 3,250, 169 were under the age of 13. Children are now spending an average of 107 hours in the grim Border Patrol holding cells, with 24-hour always-on lighting, that Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote in the Washington Post are “essentially police precincts with cement floors.”

Each day, according to the Post, an additional 500 or more children are arriving in CBP and Border Patrol custody, with nearly 700 on March 10. As of March 9, the refugee agency had just over 500 shelter beds available to accommodate them. ORR’s shelters usually hold about 13,200 children, but that number was reduced to about 8,000 due to COVID-19 social distancing measures. This week, the shelter population grew to about 8,500 as ORR relaxed some of these measures.

ORR statistics cited in the Post show that 70 percent of the unaccompanied child population is male, and 75 percent are 15 to 17 years old. “HHS officials have told the White House that they need about 20,000 shelter beds to keep pace with the influx,” the same article reveals.

As it begins its eighth week, the Biden administration has been scrambling to keep up with accommodations for the children. This is complicated by the pandemic, but also by its inability to prepare before January 20. “Trump’s political appointees at HHS and DHS refused to meet with” Biden transition officials, the New Yorker reported, “deliberately sabotaging their ability to plan ahead, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.” Agencies are taking the following measures to speed up the throughput in ORR’s system, reducing the amount of time a child spends in its shelters from the current average of 30 to 40 days.

  • Working “aggressively” to release children to the custody of sponsors, including proposals to help pay some of the children’s travel costs.
  • Loosening or lifting COVID-19 precautions that had reduced shelters’ capacity.
  • Asking DHS personnel to volunteer to travel to the border and help with processing.
  • Looking for additional ORR “influx facilities” to hold children ages 13-17, where conditions are more austere than in the agency’s normal shelters but superior to CBP custody. One has opened in Carrizo Springs, Texas, and may hold up to 952 children. Other candidates include Moffett Federal Airfield, a NASA site in Google’s headquarters town of Mountain View, California; a facility in Homestead, Florida that drew controversy during the Trump administration due to poor conditions; and Fort Lee, a U.S. Army facility south of Richmond, Virginia.

On March 6, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a 13-person delegation of top officials from several agencies to the border. They visited the Carrizo Springs facility and a temporary CBP processing center in Donna, Texas, and presented recommendations to President Joe Biden after their return to Washington.

February migration numbers rise overall, even as pandemic “expulsions“ policy remains in place

Unaccompanied children are one of a small number of categories of migrants who stand any chance right now of being released into the United States to seek asylum or protection. Most migrants apprehended at the border get expelled, often within an hour or two, under a pandemic measure referred to as “Title 42” that the Trump administration instituted in March 2020 and the Biden administration has maintained.

In addition to unaccompanied children, the other exceptions to rapid expulsion appear to be:

  • A growing proportion of family unit members (parents with children) apprehended at the border: CBS News reports that nearly 60 percent of family members apprehended in February “were processed under U.S. immigration law, with many allowed to seek asylum or other forms of protection while in American communities.” The rest were expelled.
  • A tightly controlled stream of migrants who had been subject to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) policy. As of March 10, the White House reported that 1,400 MPP enrollees had been admitted into the United States to await their immigration court hearings. About 15,000 of a qualified population of over 25,000 had signed up for admission into the United States. The winding down of “Remain in Mexico” brought a happy bit of news: the closure of a squalid encampment of MPP enrollees in Matamoros, Mexico near the Brownsville, Texas border crossing. Though not all of the camp’s residents have been admitted yet, the number of those still waiting is small enough for shelters to accommodate them in Matamoros.

Migrants not in these categories, including many Haitian and Central American families, are still being expelled under Title 42. Still, U.S. authorities saw an increase in their encounters with all categories of migrants in February. Border Patrol encountered 96,974 migrants last month, up from 75,312 in January. CBP took another 3,467 into custody at ports of entry.

Download a packet of infographics at bit.ly/wola_border

The 96,974 encounters were the most since May 2019, and the third-most in the 114 months since October 2011. 43 percent were from Mexico, 20 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Guatemala, 6 percent from El Salvador, and 12 percent from other countries.

  • 68,732 of those encountered were single adults. This was the most single adults for any month since October 2011 (we don’t have data breaking out adults before then). 57 percent were from Mexico, 17 percent from Guatemala, 12 percent from Honduras, 4 percent from El Salvador, and 10 percent from other countries.
    Nearly all single adults were expelled, and many reflected in this number are double- or triple-counted. CBP told CBS News that about 25,000 of migrants encountered in February had been caught before. The “recidivism rate”—the percentage of apprehended migrants who had been apprehended before, expelled, and tried to cross again—was 38 percent in January, up from 7 percent in 2019.
  • 18,945 were members of family units. This was the most family unit members since August 2019 and the 12th largest monthly total since October 2011. As noted above, over 40 percent of these people were probably expelled. 47 percent were from Honduras, 19 percent from Guatemala, 9 percent from El Salvador, 4 percent from Mexico, and 21 percent from other countries.
  • As also noted above, 9,297 were unaccompanied children, the most since May 2019 and the 4th-most since October 2011. 42 percent were from Guatemala, 28 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 3 percent from other countries.

The rate of increase alarmed unnamed officials, cited in the Washington Post, who “described the surge as ‘overwhelming,’ ‘on fire’ and potentially larger than the 2019 crisis, when CBP took nearly 1 million migrants into custody.” So far in March, U.S. agents are detaining more than 4,200 people per day, which if sustained would rival the 132,856 apprehensions recorded in May 2019, which was the most in 13 years.

Mexico, too, is seeing an increase in migration: the “La 72” migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, has served 6,000 migrants so far this year, more than in all of 2020. The refugee agency COMAR received 13,513 requests to enter Mexico’s asylum system in January and February; if that rate is sustained, it will break COMAR’s request record set in 2019.

Overall, U.S. authorities expelled 72 percent of the migrants they encountered in February, under the Title 42 pandemic measure. That was down from 83 percent in January and 85 percent in December.

55 percent of family unit members are being apprehended in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector. In order to balance out the caseload, CBP has begun flying some of those families elsewhere for processing. The Dallas Morning News and El Paso Matters reported that two planes per day, each carrying up to 135 migrants, have begun arriving in El Paso from the Rio Grande Valley. There, families would be processed, begin their asylum paperwork, and be turned over to Annunciation House, a respite center that gives them a place to stay for a few days while they make travel arrangements to the communities where they will live and go to immigration court.

At a March 10 White House briefing, Roberta Jacobson—a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who is now the National Security Council’s southern border coordinator—repeatedly urged migrants not to come to the border right now, noting that Title 42 remains in force. She also acknowledged that migrant smugglers are likely capitalizing on the perception that the Biden administration will be more welcoming than its predecessor. While they say they intend to lift the pandemic measures and other Trump-era obstacles to asylum, Jacobson and other officials are asking for time to set up infrastructure for processing, alternatives to detention, and other needs. “We are… almost 50 days in,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “We are digging ourselves out of a broken and dismantled system.”

Republican leaders have ramped up their messaging about the increased migration numbers as evidence of a “Biden border crisis.” House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-California) plans to lead a delegation of Republicans to the border soon. “The border is breaking down as I speak,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News. “Immigration in 2022 [midterm legislative elections] will be a bigger issue than it was in 2016.” Trump’s former acting DHS secretary, Chad Wolf, co-authored a Fox News column alleging that the Democratic Party’s plan is to allow larger numbers of undocumented aliens to enter, give them citizenship and turn them into loyal voters.

Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has probably received the most attention by alleging that admissions of asylum seekers are spreading COVID-19. In fact, as the Associated Press reported, there is no evidence to back up that claim. As he sends up to 1,000 state police and Texas military forces to the border, Gov. Abbott is refusing the Biden administration’s offer of Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) money for Texas communities to provide COVID-19 testing for asylum-seeking migrants and to cover other costs associated with their arrival.


  • As foreseen in an early February White House executive order, the Departments of State and Homeland Security reinstated the Central American Minors program. This Obama-era effort allowed nearly 5,000 children to apply within their own countries to migrate to join parents with legal status in the United States. The Trump administration abruptly canceled the program in 2017, stranding about 3,000 kids who had been approved for travel.
  • The Biden administration announced on March 8 that it will offer Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months to an estimated 320,000 Venezuelan migrants living in the United States.
  • At her March 10 White House briefing, Amb. Roberta Jacobson addressed plans for a four-year, $4 billion aid package to Central America to address the “root causes” of migration. She noted that unlike prior aid packages, there would be an effort to steer aid away from corrupt government leaders and toward civil society, the private sector, and other reformers. That dovetails with the recommendation of former Obama White House official Dan Restrepo, who wrote in Foreign Affairs that “where corrupt governing elites are resistant to change, Washington should partner with civil society.”
  • The ACLU sent a letter to DHS Secretary Mayorkas detailing 13 administrative complaints about abuse committed by border agents, which the organization had filed with the DHS Inspector General between 2019 and 2020. None of the cases have moved.
  • Reuters reports on smugglers’ increasing use of color-coded wristbands to indicate that migrants traveling through Mexico and crossing the border have “paid for the right to transit through cartel territory.”
  • The Cato Institute obtained official data pointing to a 41 percent or greater increase in successful “illegal entries” of migrants—what Border Patrol calls “got-aways”—during the Trump administration. Border agents meanwhile told the Washington Post that they counted 1,000 got-aways in a single day in February.
  • DHS Secretary Mayorkas is testifying in the House Committee on Homeland Security on March 17.
  • In its four years, the Trump administration “filled two-thirds of the immigration courts’ 520 lifetime positions with judges who, as a whole, have disproportionately ordered deportation,” Reuters reveals.