The number of migrant families with children and unaccompanied minors apprehended by U.S. agents along the southern border increased last month, testing the current pandemic-era capacity to process them, according to government data published Wednesday.

Adult migrants traveling without children, however, continued to make up the bulk of those apprehended by U.S. authorities and most were swiftly expelled to Mexico under a Trump-era emergency edict issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Out of 78,000 arrests in January, nearly 65,000 involved single adults.

Customs and Border Protection reported detaining nearly 5,900 unaccompanied minors and making 7,500 apprehensions of parents and children traveling together in January. In December, U.S. officials made fewer than 4,700 apprehensions of families and nearly 5,000 of unaccompanied children.

The apprehensions of unaccompanied children are the highest since July 2019, while the interdictions of families are the highest since January 2020. However, these numbers continue to be well-below the historic highs of May 2019, when more than 88,000 parents and children and 11,000 unaccompanied minors were detained along the U.S.-Mexico border.

While total apprehensions increased by six percent in January from December, it’s unclear whether the uptick is a sign of a potential steady increase in migration to the U.S. southern border, since many migrant adults are being expelled to Mexico more than once, inflating the number of detentions. 

CBP said 38% of arrests along the southern border since March involved migrants who had been previously detained. During a call with reporters on Wednesday, a senior Department of Homeland Security official said the so-called recidivism rate could “overstate the migration pressures at the border.”

In addition to 59,000 expulsions of single adults in January, 4,700 migrants traveling as families were expelled under the CDC order. Instead of being given a notice to appear in court or an asylum interview, these migrants are expelled to Mexico or to their home countries.

CBP said the increase in crossings could be linked to the crime and instability in some Latin American countries, as well as “inaccurate perceptions of shifts in immigration and border security policies.” While President Biden has pledged to bolster asylum processing capacity, he has, for now, retained most of former President Trump’s border restrictions.

Last week, Mr. Biden ordered a review of the CDC order that has now been used to carry out nearly 460,000 expulsions of migrants and asylum-seekers since March. But on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the policy would remain in place for the time being.

“Now is not the time to come, and the vast majority of people will be turned away,” Psaki said. “Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately; it will take time to implement.”

Unaccompanied migrant children were also being expelled in large numbers until November, when a federal judge ruled that the expulsions were not authorized by public health law and did not override legal protections Congress created for them. A federal appeals court lifted that injunction on January 29, but the Biden administration has pledged not to expel unaccompanied minors going forward.

The stated policy shift means most non-Mexican unaccompanied children will continue to be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s network of shelters and housing facilities, as required by law. The office, an agency overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, is charged with housing these minors until they can be placed with sponsors, who are typically relatives residing in the U.S.

While it oversees 13,000 beds, the refugee agency has said it can’t currently house more than 8,500 migrant children due to coronavirus mitigation protocols. The agency, which was housing more than 5,200 children last week, has recently reported a “marked” uptick in minors being transferred into its custody.

A federal shelter contractor who works with the refugee agency to house unaccompanied children expressed concern about the number of minors being transferred from CBP facilities. The official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, fears the uptick could be a harbinger of an influx of children similar to the ones in 2014 and 2019.

“I see a Category Five hurricane in the Gulf and we just now have the tropical storm force winds on the coast,” the shelter official told CBS News. “I think the numbers will continue at this current rate.”

The refugee office is set to reopen an influx facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas next week that will be able to accommodate 720 migrant teenagers. CBP has also opened a tent complex in Donna, Texas to temporarily hold migrant families and children.

A senior DHS official said the department is “absolutely endeavoring” to meet its legal obligation to transfer unaccompanied children into the custody of the refugee agency within 72 hours. The official said the department is not currently planning to open another border-area holding facility for migrant families and minors.

Neha Desai, the director of the immigration division at the National Center for Youth Law, acknowledged that the pandemic has posed “significant operational challenges” for the refugee agency and its housing facilities for migrant children. However, Desai said the office could be taking additional steps to expedite the release of minors and free up bed space.

“This work requires creativity and a willingness to do things differently, and we are hopeful that under the Biden administration’s leadership, this is possible,” Desai told CBS News.

In recent days, U.S. authorities have released dozens of recently apprehended families with children into certain U.S. border communities instead of expelling them.

A CBP official said the releases were largely limited to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, since Mexican authorities in the state of Tamaulipas stopped accepting certain Central American families.

Vladimir Castillo Ledón, a spokesperson for the Mexican foreign ministry, said some “adjustments” were made on a local level because of a new law that gives Mexico’s family and child welfare authorities authority over the cases of migrant minors.

Castillo Ledón said Mexico continues to abide by a March 2020 agreement with the U.S. in which the Mexican government committed to accepting Central American families and single adults expelled under the CDC order.

Sister Norma Pimentel, who oversees the largest migrant shelter along the U.S.-Mexico border as the director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said she has housed about 1,000 parents and children released by CBP in the past two weeks.

Pimentel said her group is using test kits allocated by local authorities in McAllen, Texas and Hidalgo County to test all migrants for the coronavirus before housing them. None of the newly released migrants have tested positive, she added.

The releases of some families, while relatively small, have spurred some confusion and uncertainty among migrants and asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico who also hope to enter the U.S., Pimentel said. She urged the Biden administration to quickly tell migrants how the U.S government will process their cases going forward.

“This uncertainty is causing a lot of movement,” Pimentel told CBS News.  “It needs to be outlined and defined before it comes chaotic.”

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