President Biden claimed Thursday in his first press conference since taking office that "nothing has changed" compared to earlier influxes of migrants and unaccompanied children at the border.
"It happens every single, solitary year," he said, pushing back on questions about whether his own policies contributed to the situation on the border.
"There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March," he said. "That happens every year."
The Biden administration has been grappling with surging numbers of migrants, especially children arriving at the border without their parents.
It is true, as Biden states, that numbers often rise during the early months of the year when temperatures begin to warm. But the number of children arriving today without their parents is considerably higher than at the same time in 2019 and 2020.
In fact, the number of unaccompanied children being apprehended by the Border Patrol was higher in February than it's been any previous February since 2014, according to data shared with NPR by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Authorities encountered 9,297 children without a parent in February, a 30% increase from 2019, during the last major influx of unaccompanied children.
To be sure, it's still below the peaks of 11,000 unaccompanied minors who arrived in May 2019 and above 10,000 in June 2014, but experts and administration officials expect those records to be broken this year.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last week that U.S. agents are on pace to intercept more migrants on the southwest border in 2021 than they have in the last two decades.
The reasons for the influx of migrants from Central America are vast and complex. They are also deeply personal for each family who chooses to leave their home.
Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, says they involve a mix of longstanding factors, such as poverty and corruption, as well as new factors such as two recent hurricanes and widespread unemployment due to the pandemic.
"And then we also, of course, do have a new administration coming into office in the U.S. that has promised to treat migrants more humanely," Bolter said. "And that's something that's not lost on migrants. And it's certainly not something that's lost on smugglers who are likely to exaggerate kind of any change in U.S. policy to increase their business and get migrants to come with them to the U.S.-Mexico border."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended an average of 5,000 undocumented immigrants per day over the past 30 days, including about 500 unaccompanied children, according to a senior Border Patrol official who spoke to reporters on Friday.
The official said the influx was "much different" than previous years, citing the large number of unaccompanied children and families traveling.
As of Wednesday, more than 5,000 unaccompanied migrant children and teens were stuck in Border Patrol facilities waiting for beds in more appropriate shelters built for children, according to Department of Homeland Security data viewed by NPR.
The Border Patrol official told reporters Friday that agents are trying to discharge the children from warehouses and jail-like holding cells as quickly as possible, but there's a bottleneck because the government can't open child shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services fast enough to accommodate everyone who's crossing.
"Unfortunately, on any given day, we may have upwards of 9,000 people in custody, which certainly puts a strain on our resources," the official said.
The Biden administration is working with other agencies trying find more bed space. They're using places like the San Diego Convention Center to hold unaccompanied minors so they're not sleeping in cells on the border.
The challenges in Central America — and at the border — have become cyclical.
Like under previous presidents, the Biden administration was not prepared to shelter this many arriving children.
But Bolter questions whether this is some kind of a new "crisis." She says this part of the same flow of migrants that the United States has been experiencing over the last decade.
Up until 2012, the vast majority of apprehensions at the southwest border were of young Mexican males coming across to find work in the United States. Two years later, the majority of cases coming across the southwest border were from Central America and were a mix people, families and unaccompanied children.
"It's really all part of the same flow," Bolter said. "This is something — these flows of Central American children and families — that administrations of both parties have struggled with, how to how to deal with them."
The Biden administration also has long-term plans to deal more directly with these issues in Central America. They include developing more legal avenues to seek asylum so that migrants don't feel they have to choose illegal avenues. And Biden just sent three top officials to Mexico and Guatemala as part of efforts to tackle the root causes of migration, something he also just tasked Vice President Harris with leading.
Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council's senior director for the Western Hemisphere, was part of that team.
He told NPR's Steve Inskeep Friday that the administration wants to help countries in the region create the right environment for international investment that drives economic prosperity, but also has ways to encourage better behavior from money launderers and other corrupt officials.
"So that's a carrot," he said. "In terms of sticks, the president during the campaign, and we're actually working to implement this now under the vice president's leadership, is committed to developing a regional anti-corruption task force. There are a lot of things that the United States and its partners can do to impose sanctions, to pull visas, to freeze assets of individuals involved, involved in money laundering."
NPR's John Burnett contributed to this story.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It happens every single solitary year.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Biden at his press conference this week claimed nothing has changed at the border compared to previous surges of migrants there. But it may be a little more complicated than that. In fact, the United States is on a pace to reach levels of migration over the next few months that it hasn't seen in years.
NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez have been covering the story and joins us. Franco, thanks so much for being with us.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: Let's bear in mind first what President Biden said. And could you please put what we're seeing at the border now in perspective compared to previous years?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, it is true, as Biden says, that the numbers often rise during the early months of the year, when temperatures begin to warm. The Migration Policy Institute actually shared with us some pretty striking graphs comparing the last few years of migration involving unaccompanied children. And what you see in those is that the spikes and dips of the numbers are very similar year after year. They're almost parallel.
But the numbers of children arriving today are considerably higher than they were at the same time in 2019 and 2014, when the U.S. government declared a humanitarian crisis on the border. This year, border agents have encountered more than 9,000 children traveling without a parent in February, just February, which was a 30% increase from the same time in 2019. And while we have not reached that peak of that year, when more than 11,000 children were apprehended, we are quickly heading in that direction.
SIMON: And, of course, the Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said he expects more migrants on the southwest border in 2021 than we've seen in the last two decades. Why the record numbers now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, what's driving these recent numbers is a mix of longstanding factors and some new ones. Poverty, insecurity and corruption are, of course, the longstanding factors. The new ones include two recent hurricanes that left thousands of families displaced and crops damaged. There is also the pandemic that led to widespread unemployment and a new administration promising a more humane policy.
SIMON: So as I read this, the numbers are higher this year, but the president points out that the spike we're seeing right now is cyclical. Both of these things can be true. But if the administration expected an increase, why weren't they better prepared?
ORDOÑEZ: Right. This is basically a continuation of nearly a decade of migration patterns when Central American children and families started arriving in larger numbers than single men from Mexico. Jessica Bolter is an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. She calls it the same flow, but points out that there have not been enough infrastructure changes within the Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement to adapt to what the data shows is coming.
JESSICA BOLTER: There really hasn't been an adjustment to how ORR prepares to adequately deal with these surges. There really should be more flexibility in ORR's ability to stand up extra capacity quickly.
ORDOÑEZ: But there's not. Hence this scramble to find more bed space so that children are not sleeping in cells on the border.
SIMON: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.