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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It happens every single solitary year.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Biden at his press conference this week claimed nothing has changed at the border compared to previous surges of migrants there. But it may be a little more complicated than that. In fact, the United States is on a pace to reach levels of migration over the next few months that it hasn't seen in years.
NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez have been covering the story and joins us. Franco, thanks so much for being with us.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: Let's bear in mind first what President Biden said. And could you please put what we're seeing at the border now in perspective compared to previous years?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, it is true, as Biden says, that the numbers often rise during the early months of the year, when temperatures begin to warm. The Migration Policy Institute actually shared with us some pretty striking graphs comparing the last few years of migration involving unaccompanied children. And what you see in those is that the spikes and dips of the numbers are very similar year after year. They're almost parallel.
But the numbers of children arriving today are considerably higher than they were at the same time in 2019 and 2014, when the U.S. government declared a humanitarian crisis on the border. This year, border agents have encountered more than 9,000 children traveling without a parent in February, just February, which was a 30% increase from the same time in 2019. And while we have not reached that peak of that year, when more than 11,000 children were apprehended, we are quickly heading in that direction.
SIMON: And, of course, the Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said he expects more migrants on the southwest border in 2021 than we've seen in the last two decades. Why the record numbers now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, what's driving these recent numbers is a mix of longstanding factors and some new ones. Poverty, insecurity and corruption are, of course, the longstanding factors. The new ones include two recent hurricanes that left thousands of families displaced and crops damaged. There is also the pandemic that led to widespread unemployment and a new administration promising a more humane policy.
SIMON: So as I read this, the numbers are higher this year, but the president points out that the spike we're seeing right now is cyclical. Both of these things can be true. But if the administration expected an increase, why weren't they better prepared?
ORDOÑEZ: Right. This is basically a continuation of nearly a decade of migration patterns when Central American children and families started arriving in larger numbers than single men from Mexico. Jessica Bolter is an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. She calls it the same flow, but points out that there have not been enough infrastructure changes within the Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement to adapt to what the data shows is coming.
JESSICA BOLTER: There really hasn't been an adjustment to how ORR prepares to adequately deal with these surges. There really should be more flexibility in ORR's ability to stand up extra capacity quickly.
ORDOÑEZ: But there's not. Hence this scramble to find more bed space so that children are not sleeping in cells on the border.
SIMON: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Scott.
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