Families accounted for nearly half of the total 132,652 migrants apprehended in July, compared with less than a third of arrests in June.
Monthly apprehensions fluctuate but the higher border traffic has stretched into August, according to a Biden administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the numbers. That development worried officials who have rolled out policies in recent weeks designed to reduce illegal crossings.
Officials said smugglers have been telegraphing to migrants in Guatemala and other countries that it is easier for adults traveling with children to be released into the United States if they cross the border illegally seeking protection.
“Smugglers have lied to people, saying that there won’t be consequences for people who arrive in family groups, and we want to clarify that this is not true,” said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Luis Miranda at a Spanish-language news conference Thursday with media outlets primarily from Latin America, urging them to spread the word to would-be migrants.
Homeland Security officials emphasized Friday that the total number of apprehensions in July was well below the same month last year, when nearly 182,000 migrants were taken into custody.
The month-to-month numbers rose to 132,652 migrants from 99,539 in June, and the composition changed. Instead of single adults dominating the rise, it was driven largely by families, federal officials said.
“It certainly has been an increase,” said a DHS official who agreed to speak with reporters about the numbers on the condition of anonymity. “But we still see overall encounters at the border are down significantly from where they had been prior to the lifting of [the pandemic policy known as] Title 42.”
Federal officials have scrambled in recent weeks to counter smugglers’ messaging with news and radio outlets in Latin America. They said they want migrants to make appointments to arrive in the United States legally at airports or through legal checkpoints instead of crossing the border illegally.
As the Biden administration prepared to end the Title 42 policy in May that allowed authorities to quickly expel migrants, officials instituted a mix of temporary policies to reduce illegal border crossings. The policies penalize migrants who cross the border illegally, including families, and urge them to apply to enter the country legally via a program called parole or by scheduling an appointment via a government app. Tens of thousands of people are arriving legally each month, officials said.
Migrants who cross illegally are considered ineligible for asylum, a humanitarian protection for people fleeing persecution in their native countries, and could be deported and barred from reentering for five years. In contrast, the Biden administration said hundreds of thousands of migrants could apply to enter the United States legally and then request protection.
Migration to the U.S. southern border has increased since Biden took office promising to treat migrants more humanely than President Donald Trump, whose approach included separating children from their parents for months without a plan to reunite them. Migrants are also fleeing oppressive governments and pandemic-stricken economies for more-plentiful jobs in the United States.
More than 2.2 million migrants were taken into custody last fiscal year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2022, including nearly 483,000 family members, up 30,000 from the year before.
More than 1.6 million migrants have arrived so far this fiscal year, including 425,169 families, with two months to go.
Families are a concern for federal officials because Border Patrol facilities are generally designed to hold adults for short periods, though the Biden administration has expanded the use of temporary “soft-sided” facilities with more amenities for families.
The Biden administration ended family detention in 2021. Although officials have not ruled out restarting it, they have said in recent weeks that is not in their plan.
Officials said they are still deporting migrant families who do not qualify for asylum or another way to legally remain in the United States, if they cross the border illegally and are released to await an immigration court hearing.
In May, officials created the Family Expedited Removal Management (FERM) program, which puts families on a fast track in immigration proceedings. Heads of households must obey a curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. And officials are publicizing their deportations, posting videos this month of uniformed immigration agents escorting children onto airplanes with their parents and sending them home.
The departures are the result of families who failed to seek out legal pathways into the United States, officials said.
The Biden administration says its increased enforcement is meant to dissuade migrants from paying thousands of dollars to smugglers to guide them on dangerous journeys. Many adults and children have trekked into jungles such as the perilous 60-mile stretch between Colombia and Panama known as the Darién Gap or cities on the Mexican side of the border where migrants have been raped, kidnapped for ransom or killed.
Conditions can be dangerous on the U.S. side of the border as well, especially if federal holding facilities become crowded.
Several migrant children have died after entering the United States, including an 8-year-old girl from Honduras who fell ill with the flu and died May 17 after a prolonged stay in federal custody, and a 3-year-old who had been riding on a bus from Texas to Chicago. The Marion County, Ill., coroner has said the matter is under investigation, according to state officials.
A 17-year-old Honduran boy died May 10 while staying at a Florida shelter for unaccompanied minors, who are teens and children who cross the border without their parents. The medical examiner in Pinellas County said in an Aug. 9 report provided in response to a records request from The Washington Post that the youth, Angel Maradiaga Espinoza, died of injuries related to a seizure disorder.
Officials say there is a variety of legal — and free — pathways available for migrants that are safer than making dangerous journeys through other countries on their way to the U.S. border. They have created parole programs for Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Haitians — the U.S. government has difficulty deporting migrants to those countries because of limited diplomatic relations or civil unrest — and for people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and Honduras who are already going through the legal immigration process.
Other migrants are being referred to refugee programs that help people fleeing persecution find a permanent home.
Federal officials said they also have opened regional processing centers — now known as “safe mobility” offices — in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Colombia to advise migrants about ways to migrate legally. The offices are operating with support from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and the International Organization for Migration.