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U.S. Border Patrol migrant apprehensions reached record levels in May

Border Patrol agents along the southern border recorded in May an all-time monthly high in apprehensions, processing migrants who entered the U.S. unlawfully over 222,000 times as part of a historic migration event, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics released Wednesday show.

May's tally of migrant arrests surpassed the previous monthly record U.S. Border Patrol set in March 2000, when the agency recorded just over 220,000 apprehensions, according to historical government data for the past two decades.

U.S. authorities also reported processing another 17,000 unauthorized migrants at official border ports of entry, where the Biden administration has been admitting some asylum-seekers deemed to be vulnerable so they can continue their immigration proceedings inside the country. 

The statistics published Wednesday show the unprecedented levels of migrant arrivals recorded along the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year under President Biden have only continued to intensify, posing major humanitarian, logistical and political challenges for his administration.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has processed migrants over 1.5 million times in fiscal year 2022, which will end at the end of September, a tally that is on track to exceed the record 1.7 migrant arrivals in fiscal year 2021.

Republican lawmakers have said the unprecedented number of migrant arrests stem solely from Biden administration decisions to end some Trump-era restrictions. The administration and its allies, however, have said the record border arrivals are part of a broader displacement crisis fueled by pandemic-era economic woes, natural disasters, violence and political repression in parts of Latin America.

May's historic tally of border arrests was, in part, driven by record arrivals of Colombian and Nicaraguan migrants, high numbers of Cuban asylum-seekers continuing to reach the Mexican border and a sharp increase in Haitians entering U.S. immigration custody. Arrivals of migrants from Brazil, Ecuador, Russia and other nations also increased.

The soaring number of migrant arrivals has also been partly fueled by an unusually high rate of migrants crossing the border multiple times after being returned to Mexico. CBP said Wednesday that 25% of the migrant encounters in May involved migrants who had been previously stopped by the agency in the past year.

Nearly 77,000 of the migrant encounters in May involved Mexicans; 25,348 involved Cubans; 21,382 involved Guatemalans; 19,491 involved Hondurans; 19,040 involved Colombians; 18,944 involved Nicaraguans; 10,418 involved Haitians; 8,955 involved Salvadorans; 5,118 involved Brazilians; 5,078 involved Venezuelans; 3,394 involved Russians and 3,045 involved Ecuadoreans.

Migrants get into a United States Border Patrol transport vehicle after crossing the US-Mexico border near Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on June 3, 2022. PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images

Approximately 100,000 of the CBP encounters in May led to migrants being expelled to Mexico or their home country without a chance to request asylum under a pandemic-era policy known as Title 42, agency data show. The Biden administration sought to end Title 42 last month, citing improving public health conditions, but a federal court required officials to continue the expulsions indefinitely. 

Decisions on whether to expel migrants under Title 42 depend on their nationality, age, the U.S. region where they are processed, diplomatic relations with their home countries and operational considerations by the government and the border-area organizations that shelter and assist asylum-seekers. 

In the past year, the Biden administration has used Title 42 mainly on single adults. In May, U.S. officials expelled single adults over 90,000 times, representing 90% of all expulsions that month. Another 74,550 single adults were processed under U.S. immigration law, which allows them to seek asylum.

Just over 59,000 migrant parents and children traveling as families entered U.S. border custody last month. Roughly 17% of those encounters led to families being expelled, a low percentage partly driven by Mexico's reluctance to accept Central American families with young children, among other reasons.

Single adults processed under U.S. immigration laws are typically sent to long-term detention centers, deported under a process known as expedited removal or released and allowed to attend court hearings where they can seek asylum. Families who are not expelled are typically released with court notices.

CBP also reported processing 14,700 unaccompanied children, who are not subject to Title 42, in May. Non-Mexican unaccompanied minors are transferred to shelters run by the Department of Health of Human Services (HHS), which is tasked with placing them with sponsors, typically relatives in the U.S.

While the Trump administration's border strategy mostly focused on measures to deter migrants and asylum-seekers from coming to the U.S., the Biden administration has adopted a broader approach involving assistance to migrant-sending countries, faster border processing and the enlistment of foreign countries to intercept or impose visa restrictions on would-be migrants.     

In late May, the Biden administration launched a long-awaited program designed to speed up asylum processing by funneling more claims to DHS asylum officers, as opposed to the immigration court system, where migrants wait an average of four years to get a decision because of a backlog of 1.7 million pending cases.

Biden administration officials have said the rule will allow the U.S. to more quickly grant asylum to immigrants fleeing persecution, while quickly deporting those who don't qualify for refuge. However, the policy has so far been implemented on a small scale, affecting only some migrants at two Texas detention facilities.

One of the most striking demographic changes in May was the 98% drop in Ukrainians processed by U.S. border officials.

In April, CBP officials along the southern border processed a record 20,000 Ukrainians, the vast majority of whom were allowed to enter the U.S. under humanitarian exemptions to Title 42 that the Biden administration made to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine. After that process was shut down on April 25, CBP processed 375 Ukrainians in May.

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