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Migrant Surge At Border Is On Pace To Be The Biggest In Nearly 2 Decades

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden had this message for people who are coming through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I can say quite clearly, don't come. And what we're in the process of getting set up - and it's not going to take a whole long time - is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don't leave your town or city or community.

KING: That was in an interview with ABC News. The president said his administration is sending most people who cross the border back to Mexico. But children traveling alone - more than 4,000 of them - have been allowed to stay in the U.S., largely in cramped Border Patrol centers.

Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP is covering this story from El Paso. Good morning, Angela.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: President Biden's message there was very explicit. He is responding to events that tend to be cyclical. The people who are coming to the U.S., why are they coming now?

KOCHERGA: Well, there are many reasons. But because it can be such a long journey to get to the U.S.-Mexico border, many migrants left their home countries before the presidential election, without knowing who might win. And I spoke with Jose Hernandez, who traveled from Honduras. He's a father of two. He left his family back home and is planning to send money as soon as he can enter the U.S. and find work. He told me he had to leave Honduras because the situation is so bad there.

JOSE HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: He says necessity forced him to leave, that the economy in his country is so terrible there are no job opportunities. He says Honduras is devastated by hurricanes that flooded nearly half the country. Now, he already tried to cross into the U.S. once a few weeks ago and was turned away, and he says he's going to try again.

KING: OK. You spent many years covering the border region. Is there something different this time?

KOCHERGA: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says this migration surge is on pace to be the biggest in nearly two decades. Customs and Border Protection says they apprehended more than 100,000 people at the border with Mexico in February alone. Now, that's the highest monthly total since 2019. About 40% of those migrants have tried to cross multiple times, so that's driving up the total.

And again, children traveling alone are not being turned away. According to CBP, more than 400 children are arriving at the border alone every day, some as young as 6 years old. Families with children and people who are adults older than 18 are being sent back to Mexico. And many are from other countries, mostly Central America.

KING: And what happens after people are turned back and sent into Mexico, particularly if they're not from there?

KOCHERGA: Well, across the border in Juarez, Mexico, they've got their own surge to deal with, not only as more people arrive to try and enter the U.S. but those that are being sent back to Mexico. In Juarez, there's a humanitarian relief effort. I spoke with Enrique Valenzuela, and he's the coordinator of the Chihuahua Population Council, which is helping manage shelters to take care of all the people who are prevented from entering the U.S. And here's what he had to say.

ENRIQUE VALENZUELA: We believe that at this point we need to set up and build up more capacities. We need more shelters. And, of course, we need everything that comes with that and health care and attention for children, of course.

KOCHERGA: So, again, there's the humanitarian crisis on both sides of the border. And Mexico is coping with its own surge. And not just here in Juarez along this stretch of border, but many border cities in Mexico, there are similar problems, Noel.

KING: Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP in El Paso. Thank you, Angela.

KOCHERGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.