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Migrant arrivals at Mexican border increased in February, with 55% quickly expelled

Migrant arrivals at the southern border jumped by 7% in February from the previous month, but U.S. immigration officials also increased deportations, expelling over half of those who entered government custody using rules first issued under the Trump administration, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data published Tuesday.

U.S. border authorities recorded 164,973 migrant apprehensions last month, compared to 153,941 detentions in January, the CBP figures show. Expulsions of migrants under a pandemic-era restriction put in place in 2020 rose by 17% to 91,513, representing 55% of all border encounters in February.

The jump in immigration arrests along the Mexican border was largely fueled by a significant increase in arrivals of migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba and Colombia, as well as a higher arrest tally for single adults, many of whom try to enter the U.S. illegally multiple times after being expelled.

CBP processed single adult migrants 126,151 times last month, an 11% jump from January. But officials also recorded a 16% drop in arrivals of families, processing 26,582 migrant parents and children traveling together. Just over 12,000 unaccompanied children entered U.S. border custody in February, a slight increase from January.

Arrests of Mexican migrants rose by 18% to 71,210 in February, while arrivals of Guatemalans increased by 31% to 18,175. Cubans and Colombians reached the U.S. border in record numbers, surpassing tallies for some Central American countries. About 16,500 migrants from Cuba and 9,600 from Colombia entered U.S. custody.

CBP officials also processed 13,887 migrants from Honduras, 13,295 from Nicaragua and 7,116 from El Salvador, the agency statistics show.

The increase in arrivals from some nations offset a 86% monthly drop in the number of Venezuelans entering U.S. border custody. U.S. immigration officials processed 22,779 Venezuelan migrants in January and 24,805 in December, an all-time monthly high. In February, that number plummeted to 3,072.

The sharp drop in arrivals from Venezuela to the southern border coincides with the Mexican government's move in January to impose visa requirements on Venezuelans at the request of the U.S. Last year, Mexico also ended visa-free travel for citizens of Ecuador and Brazil, fueling a drop in U.S. arrests of migrants from those countries who were flying to Mexico City before reaching the southern border.

The CBP numbers published Tuesday show the Biden administration has used the Trump-era border expulsion policy, known as Title 42, to expel migrants more than 1.2 million times in 13 months.

The Title 42 policy, which was first approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March 2020, has led to an unusually high rate of repeat border crossings as some migrants try to enter the U.S. multiple times after being expelled to northern Mexico. 

In February, 30% of migrants who crossed the border illegally had been previously processed by U.S. border officials in the past 12 months, significantly higher than the 14% pre-pandemic repeat crossing rate.

Because immigrants processed under Title 42 are returned to Mexico or flown to their home countries without being allowed to apply for asylum, advocates for asylum-seekers have called the policy illegal. But the Biden administration has said it is necessary to curb COVID-19 outbreaks in border detention facilities.

The Biden administration's decision to continue the expulsions has come under increasing legal scrutiny and vocal criticism from top Democrats in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who last week called Title 42 "disastrous" for asylum-seekers.

Earlier this month, the administration's Title 42 plans suffered two legal defeats when a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., barred the expulsion of migrant families to places where they could be harmed, and a judge in Texas said officials could no longer exempt unaccompanied children from the expulsions.

In response to the latter ruling, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky revoked her Title 42 directives as they applied to unaccompanied children, saying their expulsions were not necessary due to widespread vaccine availability, testing and improved pandemic conditions.

The ruling from the federal appeals court in Washington has not yet taken effect. If upheld, it would require U.S. officials to interview migrant families to ensure they will not be persecuted if expelled, a prospect that could prompt the administration to scale back — or even end — Title 42.

The CDC is supposed to finish an ongoing reassessment of Title 42 by the end March to determine whether U.S. border agents should continue to expel migrant adults and families traveling with children.

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