Some immigration trends turn in Biden's favor as security chief travels to border

New immigration data shows trends at the border may be changing as the Biden administration attempts to control migration and the secretary of Homeland Security visits a Border Patrol facility in south Texas on Friday.

While the number of Border Patrol enforcement encounters remained elevated last month — but leveled off — the number of unaccompanied minors in USBP custody dropped dramatically. The rate of transfer to better-equipped Health and Human Services facilities also increased.

On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled to south Texas to visit what has been one of the most over-crowded Border Patrol facilities in the country. Located in Donna, Texas, the facility at one point housed 4,300 migrants and is now down to fewer than 800, according to CBP. COVID-19 protocols put the capacity of the facility at 250.

Still, more than 170,000 non-citizens were arrested or detained at the southern border in April, according to current and former officials familiar with the preliminary data.

One source familiar with the Customs and Border Protection data said there were also about 40,000 known “got-aways” or people observed fleeing the border suspected of crossing illegally.

The high numbers, which are nearly the same as the spike seen in the previous month, indicate a continuing challenge for the Biden administration as it has scrambled to increase processing capacity amid an increase of unaccompanied children.

PHOTO: Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on March 1, 2021, in Washington.

The Biden administration has avoided calling the situation at the border a “crisis,” although the president himself did just that recently when he was asked about the cap on refugee admissions.

“We’re gonna increase the numbers. The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people and we couldn’t do two things at once. And now we’re going to increase the numbers,” Biden said.

The White House later walked back the comments, saying Biden was referring to the economic and environmental crises in Central America that spurred families to cross.

But Republicans have seized on the influx of migrants at the border in recent months, claiming the administration has created more incentives for people to attempt the dangerous journey north. On the left, advocates are concerned about the use of Trump-era border restrictions that limit access to humanitarian protections.

Mayorkas has assured the public that the government is moving “as quickly as possible,” to end the use of a public health measure that has largely closed the border to asylum seekers since spring of 2020.

Known as “Title 42,” the Biden administration has used this public health authority to immediately turn back or expel most people attempting to cross the border. Critics have pointed to the protocols as the source of the problem, rather than a preventative measure.

“Let me start by assuring you and everyone that the use of Title 42 is not a source of pleasure, but rather frankly a source of pain,” Mayorkas said at a public University of California Los Angeles conference. “But it is something that is compelled by the reality that we are rebuilding an asylum system in a COVID environment.”

The administration is also facing heat for not moving quickly enough on reunifying families who were separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of 2017 and 2018.

The Biden administration has so far identified more than 1,000 families that remain separated, Mayorkas and Brene said recently. The fate of most known cases are wrapped up in settlement negotiations as part of litigation from the ACLU started under the Trump administration.

“The one thing we did agree on is that we will continue to reunify those where we can as we move forward in those negotiations,” said Michelle Brané, executive director of the Family Reunification Task Force. “So this is the first group, and we have more that are in the process that we will be reviewing. So we hope that in the coming weeks and months, the applications will continue until a larger formal process.”

Biden administration officials on Wednesday convened a conference call with reporters to tout the progress made on managing the influx of migrants in recent months.

“What you’re seeing now is the beginning of what it looks like to have a well-managed border,” one official said.

Without providing much of a policy update, the officials noted their own progress in expanding the Department of Health and Human Services’ refugee resettlement capacity to take the pressure off Border Patrol stations that had been stuck housing massive numbers of unaccompanied children.

The implementation of virtual case management, the training of additional case managers and additional efforts to expedite the release of children to families and sponsors resulted in a 20% increase in the number of resettled children last month. The number of children discharged each week increased from 1,400 to over 3,000 children per week over the same period.

The administration has stood up more than a dozen emergency intake sites to increase its capacity by more than 1,600%, one official said. Children are spending about 24 hours on average in border patrol stations, according to the officials.

ABC News’ Luke Barr contributed to this story.

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