UN official criticizes migrant deportations from southern U.S. border

By Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – A top United Nations official has criticized the United States’ deportation of migrants from its southern border, pushing Washington for faster action to roll back hardline immigration policies left over from the previous administration.

Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), urged President Joe Biden’s administration to do more, work faster and more strategically with Mexico and Central America to offer alternatives to illegal migration by improving security and job opportunities.

“We hear a lot of these programs being talked about, but we see very little at this moment still happening on the ground. And I think that this is the real issue …to prevent these movements from happening again or rather from continuing to happen,” Grandi, previously Commissioner-General of the UN Agency for Palestine refugees, told Reuters late Monday in Guatemala. His trip also included Mexico and El Salvador.

Biden vowed to lift many of the strict immigration policies of his predecessor Donald Trump. Still, several of Trump’s most criticized measures remain in place, including the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, informally called “Remain in Mexico”, and Title 42, which enables quick deportations of migrations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The U.S. is now deporting them back very quickly, but we disagree with that,” Grandi said.

“I am worried that the political context is very strong and for this administration, it may be difficult to do the right thing, which they want to do,” he said, adding that the United States should ensure “due process” before deportations.

The United States has deported more than 1.2 million migrants since the start of the pandemic, according to the American Immigration Council. Detentions at the U.S.-Mexico border have hit record highs.

Mexico, too, should offer alternatives to migrants, including those from Haiti, who arrive at the U.S. border after passing through Mexico and have no option but to request asylum, Grandi said.

“We say to Mexico, why not create a separate migration channel for them and provide them with migration opportunities?” Grandi said.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu, writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by David Gregorio)

Exclusive-Mexico considers tighter entry rules for Venezuelans after U.S. requests -sources

By Alexandra Ulmer, Dave Graham and Matt Spetalnick

SAN FRANCISCO/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Mexico is considering setting tougher entry requirements for Venezuelans, partly in response to U.S. requests, after a sharp rise in border arrests of Venezuelans fleeing their homeland, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Currently, Venezuelans do not need a visa to enter Mexico as tourists. But as apprehensions of Venezuelan migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border soar, Mexico is looking at making their entry subject to certain criteria, a Mexican official familiar with the government’s internal discussions said.

New entry rules could be applied soon, the official said.

A second Mexican government source said Mexico was reviewing its options, and holding discussions with Venezuela to explore alternatives to imposing visa requirements.

A third person familiar with Mexican-U.S. talks said Washington is urging Mexico to impose visa restrictions on Venezuelans, noting that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been complaining about the increase in Venezuelans.

Options under review include making Venezuelans show they are economically solvent and in employment, and have a return plane ticket when they enter in order to ensure they are not using Mexico to enter the United States, the first source said.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Washington was working with Mexico to address root causes of irregular migration in a “collaborative, regional approach” when asked by Reuters whether the Biden administration was pressing Mexico to tighten entry requirements for Venezuelans.

“The United States appreciates Mexico’s efforts that contribute to safe, orderly, and humane processes for migrants at and within its borders,” the spokesperson said.

The White House, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither Mexico’s foreign ministry nor Venezuela’s Information Ministry replied to a request for comment.

The discussions come as encounters of Venezuelans at the U.S.-Mexico border have leapt to 47,762 in the year through September from just 1,262 during the previous 12-month period, according to U.S. government data.

Total apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border have hit record levels this year. That has put pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of congressional elections next November, with many voters in Texas border towns upset https://www.reuters.com/world/us/migrants-school-buses-texas-town-feels-caught-middle-2021-09-21 and Republicans accusing his administration of pursuing an “open border” policy.

One of the Mexican sources said Washington had lobbied Mexico to slow arrivals from Venezuela, but that Mexico also wanted to make sure people were not entering on false pretenses.

A fourth source, in U.S. government, said efforts to lobby Mexico to tighten entry requirements from OPEC member Venezuela had increased since Venezuelan arrivals jumped this summer, and that requests for cooperation had been made informally by diplomats and the DHS. The source said Washington was not leaning hard on Mexico.

Tighter entry rules could seriously affect migration plans of many Venezuelans, who pay smuggling networks to help them escape economic devastation under President Nicolas Maduro, who has presided over a severe financial meltdown amid heavy U.S. sanctions. Many of the Venezuelans depart with little money.

Venezuelans arriving from elsewhere in Latin America like Colombia or Chile, where they often work for a few years to save in hard currency before heading north, would likely be less exposed to requirements centering on their solvency.

Rights activists on Friday decried the potential move to restrict Venezuelan arrivals.

“Venezuelan migrants and refugees are fleeing a complex humanitarian emergency, lack of justice, an absence of freedom, and violence,” said David Smolansky, an exiled Venezuelan opposition leader who coordinates the Organization of American States’ response to Venezuela’s migration crisis. “In the face of such a situation, it is fundamental that they receive protection.”

Reuters reported in October that the Biden administration wanted Mexico to impose visa requirements on Brazilians to complicate their path to the U.S. border. And in September, Mexico suspended visa exemptions for Ecuadorians for six months following a steep increase in that country’s nationals trying to cross the U.S. border.

The U.S. government source said Biden’s aides could raise the Venezuelan migrant issue with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s delegation when he visits Washington next week for a U.S.-Mexico-Canada summit.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco, Dave Graham in Mexico City and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, Mica Rosenberg in New York, Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. borders reopen, but not for asylum seekers stuck in Mexico

By Kristina Cooke, Mica Rosenberg and Caitlin O’Hara

NOGALES, Mexico (Reuters) – Leo fled his hometown in southern Mexico after his uncle was murdered by gang members and he received death threats. Earlier this year, he, his wife and their two children headed to the U.S.-Mexico border hoping to claim asylum.

After months of waiting, he hoped he would finally get his chance on Monday. But even as U.S. borders opened for travelers vaccinated against COVID-19, they remained closed to asylum seekers.

When Leo, 23, and his family approached the port of entry in Nogales, Mexico with his and his wife’s vaccination cards in hand, they were told by a border official they could not enter and seek asylum.

“I feel dispirited and sad,” said Leo, who asked his last name not be published for fear of reprisals from the gang he fled. President Joe Biden “is just continuing the same policies of Donald Trump.”

Biden has kept in place a controversial U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order, first implemented by his Republican predecessor Trump in March 2020, that allows migrants to be immediately expelled without an opportunity to seek asylum.

The Biden administration has said the CDC’s order, known as Title 42, remains necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as asylum seekers are processed in crowded settings at the border.

Any foreign national attempting to enter the United States without proper documentation will be subject to expulsion regardless of vaccination status, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Advocates have criticized the Biden administration’s continuation of the expulsion policy as borders reopen.

The idea that a vaccinated asylum seeker is more of a risk than a vaccinated tourist is laughable, said Noah Gottschalk, global policy lead with Oxfam America, one of the advocacy groups suing the Biden administration to overturn the Title 42 order. Gottschalk said the exclusion of vaccinated asylum seekers strengthens the group’s argument that the policy isn’t about public health.

In September, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to stop expelling family units – parents or legal guardians arriving with their children – under the Title 42 order. The administration appealed, and a higher court put the judge’s ruling on hold as the case moves forward.

Last month, more than 1,300 medical professionals signed letters to the CDC urging it to end the border expulsions order, saying it lacked epidemiological evidence to justify it and put migrants at risk.

New York-based nonprofit Human Rights First has documented more than 7,600 kidnappings and other attacks on migrants stuck in Mexico who were blocked from entering the United States since Biden took office in January.

Leo has been working in construction to pay rent in Nogales, but he says his earnings are not enough to support his family. “They abuse you because they know you are not from here, they pay you what they want,” he said.

He is also worried about his children getting hit by a stray bullet when gunshots ring out at night. The U.S. State Department recommends Americans reconsider travel to the Mexican state of Sonora, where Nogales is located, due to crime and kidnapping.

“We were fleeing a place that was dangerous,” said Leo. “And here it is the same.”

(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, Mica Rosenberg in New York and Caitlin O’Hara in Nogales, Mexico; Editing by Mary Milliken and Karishma Singh)

Biden under pressure as U.S.-Mexico border arrests reach record highs

By Kristina Cooke

(Reuters) – U.S. authorities arrested 1.7 million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year, the most ever recorded, according to a U.S. government source familiar with the numbers, underscoring the stark political and humanitarian challenges the Biden administration faces on immigration.

The current numbers for the 2021 fiscal year, which began last October, topped a previous high in 2000. The numbers were first reported by the Washington Post.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat who took office in January, reversed many of the hardline immigration policies of his Republican predecessor, President Donald Trump, promising a more “humane” approach to immigration policy.

Biden’s nominee to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Tucson, Arizona, Police Chief Chris Magnus, faced questions on Tuesday from Republican lawmakers who referred to the situation at the border as chaos and a crisis.

Adding to concerns was an influx of thousands of mostly Haitian migrants last month who crossed the Rio Grande river from Mexico and set up a makeshift camp under an international bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats and immigration advocates have slammed Biden for his swift expulsions of many of those migrants back to Haiti, a country that has been devastated by violence, political crises and natural disasters. The administration also launched an investigation into the tactics of border patrol agents on horseback photographed and filmed in Del Rio trying to push back Haitian migrants along the river bank.

Many of the Haitians were returned under one sweeping Trump policy that Biden has kept in place. Known as Title 42, it was implemented in March 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to curb infections and allows most migrants to be quickly expelled without a chance to seek asylum.

Many of the arrests this fiscal year were repeat crossings, with some people expelled to Mexico turning around and trying again.

A federal court has also ordered the Biden administration to reinstate another Trump-era policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which forced thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for U.S. immigration court hearings. The administration said it is taking steps to restart the program in November, pending agreement from Mexico.

(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Aurora Ellis)

Migrants’ hopes dashed by surprise deportation to Haiti from U.S. border

By Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Haitian migrant Nikel Norassaint did not know where he was headed when Mexican migration officials put him on a flight last week in the southeastern city of Villahermosa, days after they had detained him near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The sea below was his only clue until the plane touched down in Port-au-Prince a few hours later, his first time in the country in five years.

“I said, ‘Wow, I’m in Haiti,'” Norassaint, 49, recalled. “My heart almost stopped.”

Norassaint, who has lived abroad for two decades, and another Haitian migrant on the flight said they were stunned to be returned to their homeland without warning.

They joined some 7,000 people expelled to Haiti from the United States after more than double that number amassed last month at an encampment in Del Rio, Texas on the Mexican border. Mexico has sent 200 people total back to Haiti as well.

Migrant advocacy groups and even a former U.S. special envoy to Haiti have condemned deportations to the Caribbean country beset by poverty and violence as inhumane, casting doubt on pledges from both the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to aid struggling migrants.

Norassaint said he had been hopeful that Biden, who had advocated for a “humane” immigration policy, had “opened the door” for migrants when he crossed into Del Rio to seek entry to the United States.

But he decamped to Mexico once word began to spread of U.S. deportations. Migration officials detained him in the city of Ciudad Acuna opposite Del Rio and then bused him 930 miles (1,500 km) south to Villahermosa.

The Mexican government’s National Migration Institute (INM) had described the Sept. 29 flight to Port-au-Prince with 70 migrants on board as “voluntary assisted return.”

But for Norassaint, who lived in the Dominican Republic for 16 years before resettling in Chile in 2018, nothing about going back to Haiti was a matter of choice.

“There’s no work, it’s unsafe, there was an earthquake, many people are dead,” he said, noting even President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in July.

When asked about Norassaint’s experience, Mexico’s migration institute said it followed legal administrative protocol to return people to Haiti.

MIGRATION POLICY OF ‘EUPHEMISMS’

Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of Human Rights Watch in the Americas, said in an opinion article on Sunday that the group has documented past instances of Mexican officials pressuring migrants to agree to “voluntary” returns, and described the country’s migration policy as “riddled with euphemisms.”

The migration institute sent another 130 migrants back to Haiti by plane on Wednesday; that flight was not labeled “voluntary.” A video of migrants boarding the plane, filmed by a migrant rights activist and posted on social media, showed one man jumping from the stairs and dashing across the tarmac.

Norassaint is now staying with family in the coastal city of Miragoane and asking relatives in the United States to send money because he cannot withdraw funds from his Chilean bank account.

His 12-year-old daughter and 17-year-old stepson are still in Mexico with their mother.

Another man on the flight, Alfred, also mourned his surprise deportation to Haiti after he left the country in 2009 to live in the Dominican Republic, and then Chile.

He hoped to reach the United States to escape worsening discrimination in Chile, but hung back in Mexico to avoid deportation.

Officials detained Alfred, who requested anonymity because of Haiti’s precarious security situation, as he was leaving his hotel in Ciudad Acuna to buy food and supplies for his wife, who is two months pregnant.

Alfred had made it to Mexico by following tips in a WhatsApp group while his wife took a plane so she would not need to risk her life crossing the jungle between Colombia and Panama.

During the week in migration detention, he was allowed to make one brief call to his wife, who said she was making her way to the northern border city of Tijuana.

“I’m about to have a heart attack, thinking I left my wife behind,” Alfred said. “We’ve been together for ten years. Look where she is now, and I’m here.”

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

UN migration body asks Brazil to receive Haitians on US-Mexico border

By Gabriel Stargardter and Lisandra Paraguassu

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has formally asked Brazil whether it would receive some Haitians camped along the U.S.-Mexico border hoping to enter the United States, according to two sources with knowledge of the request.

The petition from the IOM, a United Nations agency, comes as U.S. President Joe Biden faces mounting pressure to resolve yet another migration crisis. A massive flow of migrants has arrived at the U.S. southern border, sparking political headaches and logistical obstacles for the United States and Mexico.

Up to 14,000 mostly Haitians were camped just north of the Rio Grande river this month as they attempted to enter the United States. Washington has begun flying some back to Haiti, while Mexico has urged others to give up their U.S. dreams and seek asylum in the south of the country.

The IOM asked that Brazil receive Haitians who have a Brazilian child, or who have passed through Brazil before entering Mexico on their journey north, the two sources said. They said the first request was more likely to be approved. One of the sources said the second one would require more analysis.

Without mentioning the IOM request, Brazil’s foreign ministry said in a statement that “the topic was discussed in conversations between authorities from different countries and is being analyzed in light of current legislation.”

The IOM, via its Mexico office, said it has “a voluntary return program, assisting migrants of various nationalities, and the implementation of this program requires an agreement among the countries involved.” It gave no further details.

(Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; editing by Diane Craft)

U.S. and Mexico fly Haitian migrants away from border as pressure builds on Biden

By Daina Beth Solomon

CIUDAD ACUNA, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico and the United States were on Wednesday preparing to fly more Haitian migrants away from chaotic U.S.-Mexico border camps, as pressure mounted on U.S. President Joe Biden to stop expulsions of Haitians to their poor, disaster-hit homeland.

U.S. authorities have deported more than 500 Haitians since Sunday from a camp housing thousands of mostly Haitian migrants on the U.S. side of border, by the small Texan city of Del Rio.

Such deportation flights back to Haiti would continue, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said.

At the same time, Mexico has begun flying migrants away from the U.S. border, as well as sending some by bus, towards its border with Guatemala in the south.

U.S. politicians have criticized Biden’s handling of the situation with some opponents calling it a “disaster.”

U.S. authorities have ordered an investigation into an incident in which mounted U.S. border agents used their reins like whips to intimidate migrants trying to cross the Rio Grande border river.

Photographs of the incident sparked anger and the Biden administration said the agents had been pulled from front-line duties.

The deportations came amid profound instability in the Caribbean nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, where a presidential assassination, rising gang violence and a major earthquake have spread chaos in recent weeks.

Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N refugee agency, has warned that U.S. expulsions to such a volatile situation might violate international law.

Hundreds of the migrants have also gathered on the Mexican side by Ciudad Acuna, across from Del Rio. The migrants crossed back over the Rio Grande, to retreat from the U.S. camp because of shortages of food and poor conditions there.

On Tuesday, after talks with Haitian government representatives, Mexico said repatriation flights would be offered to those “who wish to return to their country”.

‘IT’S DIFFICULT’

While reports abound of Haitians across Latin America heading towards the United States, some are having second thoughts.

In Ciudad Acuna, Haitian migrant Maurival Makenson, 31, said his older sister was making her way to the border from Colombia but he was trying to persuade her to turn back.

“I tell her it’s difficult to get papers, there’s deportation,” he said.

Some of the deported Haitian migrants on Tuesday reacted angrily as they stepped off flights in Port-au-Prince after spending thousands of dollars on arduous voyages from the troubled Caribbean nation via South America hoping for a better life in the United States.

Some 130 people have traveled on Mexican flights to the southern Mexican city of Villahermosa, and another 130 people to the city of Tapachula on the Guatemala border, a Mexican government official said.

On Tuesday evening, officers from Mexico’s national migration institute (INM) entered two budget hotels on a small street in Ciudad Acuna and escorted about two dozen migrants, including toddlers, onto vans.

One woman, speaking from behind a partition, told Reuters she did not know where they were being taken.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Drazen Jorgic, Robert Birsel)

U.S. homeland security chief heads to border as removal of migrant camp accelerates

By Daina Beth Solomon

CIUDAD ACUNA, Mexico (Reuters) – The U.S. homeland security secretary will travel to Texas on Monday to oversee the ejection of mostly Haitian migrants from a sprawling makeshift camp they set up after wading across the Rio Grande from Mexico.

The camp under a bridge spanning the Rio Grande is the latest flashpoint for U.S. authorities seeking to stem the flow of thousands of migrants fleeing gang violence, extreme poverty and natural disasters in their home countries.

On Sunday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas implored migrants to give up on their northern trek, arguing the government has “no choice” but to expel them.

Mayorkas will meet with local officials and hold a news conference, according to a statement from his office.

The camp in Del Rio, Texas was temporary home to 12,000 migrants at one point. Many had trekked through south and Central America to get there and hoped to apply for asylum.

The first flights of ejected Haitians from camp landed in Port-au-Prince on Sunday, and at least three more were set to land on Monday, according to flight tracking website Flightaware.

Del Rio lies across the border from Ciudad Acuna, which sits on the Mexican side of the river.

Dozens of Haitians carrying backpacks and plastic bags of belongings have abandoned the camp and returned to Ciudad Acuna, saying they planned to stay in Mexico for now because they did not want to be sent to Haiti.

While Biden rolled back many of his predecessor Donald Trump’s immigration actions early in his presidency, he left in place a sweeping pandemic-era expulsion policy under which most migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are quickly turned back.

Alongside frantic scenes of determined Haitians seeking to cross the river but met by horse-mounted border police blocking them, other migrants quietly managed a happier fate, making in through the U.S. immigration check point.

Venezuelan migrant Melvin Azuaje, 31, and his younger brother Manuel, 11, told Reuters they were flying to the U.S. state of South Carolina where a cousin awaited them, after their asylum petitions were processed.

Azuaje, who said he took custody of Manuel after their mother died of cancer, said they had been in Del Rio for over a week, first spending two days under the bridge before being moved to a processing center.

Melvin said he was eager for Manuel, who loves baseball and math, to start a new life.

“It’s giving me goosebumps,” he said as he transited through Dallas airport Sunday evening.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Ciudad Acuna; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Del Rio; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. plans to double number of asylum officers in Biden border overhaul

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s administration will unveil a major overhaul of the U.S. asylum system on Wednesday, including a plan to double staff, in an effort to speed processing at the U.S.-Mexico border where migrant arrests have soared to 20-year highs this year.

The new proposed rule would authorize asylum officers to decide whether or not to approve a claim for protection at the Mexico border, bypassing backlogged immigration courts where cases can often take years to be resolved by judges, according to a summary of the regulation and Reuters interviews with U.S. officials.

The Biden administration aims to hire an additional 1,000 asylum officers and another 1,000 support staff, said a senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, who declined to be named ahead of an official announcement. The hiring spree would more than double the current crop of about 800 asylum officers and would be funded either by Congress or immigration application fee hikes.

“We hope that we will be able to assess claims within three months of arrival,” the senior official said. “A lot of that will depend on the number of asylum officers that are hired.”

The new process is the biggest proposed change to the asylum system since Biden took office in January, and a key part of a 21-point immigration plan unveiled in July.

The proposal for the reworked asylum process comes as arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border have risen to the highest monthly levels in two decades, giving opposition Republicans ammunition to hammer Biden, a Democrat, for rolling back many of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies.

“If we can determine who is a legitimate asylum seeker and who is not earlier in the process, I think that drives down some of the incentives for irregular migration,” the official said.

Biden’s asylum overhaul is overshadowed by his decision to keep in place a Trump-era border expulsion policy known as Title 42, which the administration says is needed to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Title 42, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), blocks most migrants caught at the border from even being considered for asylum.

‘EXPEDITED REMOVAL’

The proposal will go through a 60-day period of public comment, followed by a government review. The process to finalize it could stretch into early 2022, the DHS official said.

The regulation would apply to immigrants who are placed in fast-track deportation proceedings known as “expedited removal” on or after the rule’s effect date.

The changes could enable more migrants in the expedited removal program to be released from custody, with the possibility of being enrolled in an alternative form of monitoring as their cases are processed.

Currently, expedited removal is typically only applied to immigrants in detention. That greatly limits its application, particularly for families, due to limited space for family detention, the official said.

The expedited removal provision could trigger backlash both among immigration hardliners and liberals, since it would allow immigrants to be released from custody while also expanding the use of the fast-track deportation process.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Aurora Ellis and Ross Colvin)

Thousands of migrant kids stuck in U.S. border patrol custody -again

By Mica Rosenberg and Go Nakamura

ROMA, Texas (Reuters) – The number of migrant children in Border Patrol facilities has been steadily rising, an analysis of U.S. government data shows, as record numbers crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in July, renewing a politically sensitive issue for President Joe Biden.

On Aug. 1 there were more than 2,200 unaccompanied children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody, more than double the number just a month earlier, according to daily statistics provided by the government since March and compiled by Reuters.

A CBP spokesperson said that number includes Mexican children who are quickly returned to their home country, as well as Central American children who are transferred to U.S. federal shelters.

The average time unaccompanied children are spending in CBP custody is around 60 hours, according to one source familiar with the matter, which is just within the limits set by a long-standing court settlement.

The recent rise is alarming migrant advocates, who say the facilities are not appropriate for young children, even though levels are still below those seen in mid-March when CBP held more than 5,700 unaccompanied kids at border stations.

“Everyone is worrying about the numbers and how it is going to be for the kids moving through the system,” said Jennifer Podkul, from the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, which provides legal representation for migrant children.

Record numbers of unaccompanied children, more than 19,000, were likely encountered by border patrol agents in July, said David Shahoulian, a top U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, in a court declaration filed on Monday.

At the same time, overall apprehensions, including of families and single adults, are on pace to be the highest ever recorded this fiscal year, he said. The numbers include individuals who may cross multiple times.

The situation is straining resources, Shahoulian said, with Border Patrol facilities filled way over capacity limits set during COVID across the southwest border and more than 10,000 people in custody in the Rio Grande Valley alone as of Aug. 1.

Children traveling on their own are supposed to be transferred from CBP custody to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shelters, where they wait to be released to U.S. sponsors, often parents or other family members.

There are now more than 14,400 kids in HHS shelters, the daily government data showed.

CBP said its ability to transfer unaccompanied children out of its facilities depends on HHS capacity. HHS said in a statement that the agency is “not currently experiencing any delays that prevent prompt identification of an appropriate placement within our shelter network.”

Earlier this year the Biden administration came under intense pressure from advocacy groups and fellow Democrats to transfer children more quickly from overcrowded CBP border facilities not designed to hold them. The government set up more emergency shelters and the number of kids in CBP border facilities quickly dropped.

But some large convention centers converted to house children have shut down since then and there are now only four emergency shelters left, along with an existing network of state-licensed facilities and foster homes.

Several whistleblowers raised complaints about one of the emergency sites still open at Fort Bliss in Texas, saying “organizational chaos” and bad management by private contractors resulted in conditions that endanger children. HHS’ Office of Inspector General said on its website on Monday that it will investigate “case management challenges at Fort Bliss that may have impeded the safe and timely release of children to sponsors.”

HUNDREDS ON RAFTS

Over the course of two nights last week, hundreds of mostly Central American migrants, including families with young children and kids traveling unaccompanied, arrived on rafts after crossing the Rio Grande river near Roma, Texas, according to a Reuters witness.

They turned themselves over to border agents, who were handing out masks, forming long lines for processing. Most carried no belongings and some were from countries like Haiti, which is experiencing renewed political turmoil.

Under a Trump-era public health policy that Biden has kept in place, many face immediate expulsion. However, Biden exempted unaccompanied children from the policy. Families are still subject to the policy – on paper, but in practice most are allowed in to pursue immigration cases in U.S. courts.

Images posted on Twitter over the weekend showed hundreds of people crowding under a bridge in Mission, Texas, where agents were holding migrants outside. With concerns rising about the rapid spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, the accumulation of migrants in custody is worrying local officials.

The Texas Border Coalition, which groups mayors, county judges and economic development commissions along the Texas-Mexico border, said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that absent more immediate attention, “there is growing potential for the situation to spin out of control.”

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Go Nakamura in Roma, Texas, and Ted Hesson and Richard Cowan in Washington, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Ross Colvin and Dan Grebler)