The United States is encountering an “unprecedented” number of migrants at its southern border, according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas who says the situation is “complicated”.
Official numbers released on Thursday show that authorities encountered migrants more than 212,000 times in July, including roughly 19,000 unaccompanied children, surpassing the monthly record set in March.
During his visit to Brownsville, Texas, Mayorkas admitted there is a serious problem caused by large numbers of migrants that are arriving at the US border.
"The situation at the border is one of the toughest challenges we face," he said at a press conference. "It is complicated, changing and involves vulnerable people at a time of a global pandemic."
Mayorkas also said that an increasing number of migrants is testing positive for Covid-19, though he pushed back on claims that migrants are driving the dramatic rise in cases across the south.
"The rate of positivity is at or lower than the rates in our local border communities," he said. "We are building new capacity to address the situation, and we are doing so as rapidly as possible. The extent of the challenge should not be overstated. But nor should our ability to meet it."
The combination of rising Covid-19 rates and rising numbers of migrants is straining resources up and down the border. Processing facilities and agents are being swamped, resulting in illegal immigrants being sent to major cities without being tested for the disease.
The US Border Patrol had to hold migrants for processing under the Anzalduas International Bridge because its regular facilities were too crowded, a spokesman said.
Last week, the nearby city of McAllen, Texas opened a tent encampment for recently-released migrants who have tested positive for Covid-19.
What is not usual is the fact that crossings at the US-Mexico border rose from June to July as migration typically peaks in the spring, and then falls in the summer as the hotter weather sets in.
The administration of Joe Biden has been criticized by Republicans who say its immigration policies are to blame for the unusual summer spike in the numbers.
"This is about what our policies are on our borders," said Mark Morgan, the former acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection during the Trump administration, who's now a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"If you apply effective consequences .... I promise you, the flow will go down," he said.
Biden has reversed many immigration policies introduced by his mercurial Republican predecessor, but has continued with the controversial ‘Title 42’ policy.
Health experts and pro-migrant advocates argue that the policy cuts off access to asylum without a clear health rationale, but Biden administration officials have termed it necessary to prevent US detention centers from becoming overwhelmed as the delta variant of Covid-19 spreads in the US.