Unlawful crossings along southern border reach yearly high as U.S. struggles to contain mass migration

U.S. immigration agents processed more than 200,000 migrants who crossed the southern border unlawfully in September, the highest level recorded in 2023, as the Biden administration struggles to contain the mass migration gripping the region, according to preliminary government data obtained by CBS News.

Border Patrol agents last month recorded approximately 210,000 apprehensions of migrants who entered the U.S. without authorization in between official ports of entry along the Mexican border, an increase from 181,000 in August, internal statistics from the Department of Homeland Security show.

September's apprehension tally is the highest since Dec. 2022, when Border Patrol apprehended 222,000 migrants, the second-highest monthly figure on record. In May 2022, Border Patrol reported 224,000 migrant apprehensions, the current all-time high.

For only the second time in U.S. history, the unpublished DHS data shows, annual migrant apprehensions along the U.S. southern border surpassed 2 million. The data pertained to fiscal year 2023, which ended this weekend. The 2.2 million total of migrant apprehensions in fiscal year 2022 remains the highest-ever annual tally.

In addition to those apprehended after entering the U.S. illegally, tens of thousands of additional migrants were processed by border officials at ports of entry last month. The Biden administration has been allowing roughly 1,500 prospective asylum-seekers to enter the country each day at those official crossings if they secure an appointment through a smartphone app. 

Not all those apprehended are allowed to stay in the U.S. Some migrant adults are given the option to voluntarily return to Mexico or are placed in a fast-track deportation process if they don't claim asylum or fail initial humanitarian screenings. But government figures show most migrants in recent months have been released from U.S. border custody and instructed to undergo immigration court proceedings. While those migrants face deportation if they lose their asylum cases, the process can take years to complete due to a 2 million (and growing) backlog of unresolved cases.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said the agency expects to "see fluctuations" in migration patterns, citing smugglers' use of "misinformation to prey on vulnerable individuals." The administration, DHS added, is working to "strengthen consequences" against those who enter the country illegally, noting that the U.S. has carried out over 250,000 returns or deportations of migrants since early May. 

"We are clear eyed, however, that there is no long-term solution to the challenges we are seeing at our border that does not involve the U.S. Congress modernizing our hopelessly outdated immigration and asylum system," DHS said.

Asylum seekers cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States on September 30, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images

A setback for Biden's border strategy

The sharp rise in unlawful border entries in recent weeks illustrates the Biden administration's ongoing struggle to reduce the unprecedented flows of unauthorized migration to the U.S. in recent years. It has also undermined President Biden's border strategy, which administration officials touted when illegal entries dropped to a two-year low in June.

That strategy, which consists of expanding legal migration opportunities while imposing stricter asylum rules for some of those who enter illegally, has sharply reduced illegal border entries among some migrant groups, such as Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans. But the strategy has not had a similar, prolonged impact on other Central Americans, Venezuelans and migrants from other continents, including Africa and Asia.

In fact, the spike in illegal border crossings last month was partially fueled by arrivals of Venezuelan migrants, who are journeying to the U.S. in record numbers to escape the economic and political crisis in Venezuela or leave other South American countries with economies still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In mid-September, over a quarter, or 2,000, of all daily Border Patrol apprehensions were of Venezuelan migrants, according to internal agency statistics reviewed by CBS News. In August, Border Patrol processed an average of 713 Venezuelans each day.

Seven million Venezuelans have fled their homeland in recent years, as part of what is now the largest displacement crisis in the world, according to the United Nations. While most initially settled in Colombia and other South American nations, Venezuelans are increasingly journeying north, braving a weeks-long trek across multiple countries and Panama's roadless Darién Gap in hopes of reaching the U.S.

More than 400,000 migrants, most of them from Venezuela, have crossed the Darién jungle this year, an all-time high level that has already nearly doubled the previous record set in 2022, according to the Panamanian government.

Migrants line up outside Roosevelt Hotel while waiting for placement inside a shelter as asylum seekers camp outside the hotel as the Manhattan relief center is at full capacity in New York, United States on August 02, 2023. / Getty Images

A humanitarian and political crisis intensifies

In addition to posing significant operational challenges to Border Patrol and other federal agencies, the record levels of unlawful migration to the U.S. in recent years have strained resources in some American communities, from large interior cities like New York and Chicago to border towns like Eagle Pass and El Paso.

The humanitarian and operational challenges have arguably been the most visible in New York City, which over the past year has found itself required to shelter more than 100,000 migrants in hotels, tent facilities and, more recently, an airfield. Some of those migrants have been bused to New York under a high-profile operation by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, but most have arrived there on their own or with the help of volunteers or towns along the southern border.

The migrant influx has also intensified the political pressures faced by Mr. Biden on immigration and border policy, one of his worst-polling issues and an area many Democrats consider a major political vulnerability as he faces reelection in 2024.

Republican lawmakers in Congress and across the country have said the record migrant crossings in recent years stem from the Biden administration's decision to end some Trump-era border programs, including a policy that required migrants to remain in Mexico while U.S. courts reviewed their asylum claims.

But the Biden administration has argued the historic migration influx is a direct result of the deteriorating economic and security conditions in Latin America and other parts of the world, including crisis-stricken countries like Venezuela.

The reality is more complicated and likely somewhere in the middle, as both "push" and "pull" factors have intensified. Large-scale migrant releases, the perception that the Biden administration's border policy is more lenient and the ample supply of jobs in the U.S. have likely fueled more migration. The societal collapse in Venezuela and socio-political crises in other countries like Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua have also pushed many migrants to flee their homelands.

Less complicated is the intensity of the political backlash faced by the Biden administration. While Republicans have denounced Mr. Biden's immigration policies since the early months of his presidency, more Democrats in communities struggling to house migrants have begun to openly criticize his administration's handling of border issues.

In an interview with "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan on Sunday, New York's Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said too many migrants were ending up in New York after "simply saying they need asylum" along the U.S.-Mexico border. "We are being taxed," she said.

"We want them to have a limit on who can come across the border. It is too open right now," Hochul added.


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