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Border officials say more people are sneaking past them as crossings soar and agents are overwhelmed

Migrants from Central America, having just crossed the Rio Grande aboard rafts, wait on the side of a dirt road for the Border Patrol on March 24, 2021 in Mission, Texas. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez

Nearly 1,000 people per day are sneaking into the United States without being identified or taken into custody because U.S. border agents are busy attending to migrant families and unaccompanied children while also trying to stop soaring numbers of male adults, according to three U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials familiar with the data.

While CBP has never claimed to interdict every border crosser, the number of so-called got aways recorded in recent weeks is the highest in recent memory, said two of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the data. The agency defines a got away as an individual who is not turned back to Mexico or apprehended, and is no longer being actively pursued by Border Patrol.

Counting got aways is not an exact science, but CBP has spent more than $1 billion over the past two decades on surveillance technology and camera networks that have given the agency far greater ability to detect illegal crossings in real time. Apprehending those individuals is another matter.

When migration levels surge, as with the current influx, border agents spend significant amounts of time transporting and processing families and unaccompanied minors, who generally do not attempt to evade capture, turning themselves in and seeking humanitarian refuge in the United States.

Department of Homeland Security officials say they expect border crossings to leap to a 20-year high in 2021. The number of migrants taken into custody by agents in March is projected to top 160,000 - the highest one-month total since March 2006 - and include more than 18,000 teenagers and children who arrived without parents, a record.

A CBP spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz said during a podcast in February that the agency had recorded 1,000 got aways on a single day, describing that as an unusual event. But since then, the figure has become a new normal.

The number of single adults caught by Border Patrol in March exceeded 90,000, according to the most recent data. CBP returned most of those adults to Mexico using the Title 42 public health order that has been in place since March 2020. It has allowed U.S. authorities to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection inside immigration jails, but it has also facilitated a much higher recidivism rate as adults try to sneak in again and again until they succeed.

The number of got aways has been especially high in southern Arizona, according to two agents there, as smaller groups of individuals, some carrying drugs, have been hiking through remote areas that would require time-consuming interdictions. It appears that smuggling organizations are sending “small groups of two, three or four, and that quickly occupies all the agents available to go after them,” said one agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person was not authorized to speak to reporters.

“There are maybe 20 groups a day that are observed, but there’s nobody to try to go after them,” the agent said. “They just keep walking until they’re out of sight.”

When a group of families and children enters the United States to surrender to agents, Border Patrol’s policy is to prioritize their transfer back to the agency’s stations. Those facilities can be two hours or more from remote border areas. Families also require a lengthy intake process once they arrive at the station.

Groups of 100 or more family members and unaccompanied minors are arriving in greater numbers, and their crossings are usually coordinated by the Mexican criminal organizations that charge transit fees or tolls to anyone crossing territory under their control, CBP officials said. The smugglers often send large groups to tie up U.S. agents in one area and create a diversion, allowing them to move narcotics or single adults at other locations, they said.

Rodolfo Karisch, a retired Border Patrol official who served as chief in the Tucson and Rio Grande Valley sectors, said commanders will often deploy special units with helicopters, boats and other equipment to “work along the flanks” after the arrival of large groups with urgent humanitarian needs. “But they can get overwhelmed, too, especially if they run into people in distress who require aid,” he said.

Karisch said the soaring numbers are a “recipe for disaster” heading into the summer months, because more migrants will attempt to cross through remote areas. “Smugglers tell them to walk north a few miles, but it’s a lie, and that’s how people die in the desert,” he said.

The redeployment of U.S. border agents from highway checkpoints along smuggling corridors north of the border has also incentivized more trafficking, CBP officials say. Three highway checkpoints in Arizona have been temporarily shut down because agents were reassigned to the border.

Republican lawmakers who traveled to the border last month said large numbers of terrorists were taking advantage of the crisis to slip into the United States undetected. The real number appears to be fewer than a dozen who are labeled “known or suspected terrorists,” a fairly broad classification that can include someone “reasonably suspected to be engaging in, has engaged in, or intends to engage in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism and/or terrorist activities,” or someone suspected of being in contact with such an individual, according to federal law enforcement agencies.

The U.S. State Department has issued more skeptical findings, most recently in a 2019 report. “There was no credible evidence indicating international terrorist groups established bases in Mexico, worked directly with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States,” it stated.

There is broad consensus, however, that got aways often include previous deportees, some with serious criminal records, who pay premium rates to smugglers who can reduce their chances of capture. Under normal circumstances, repeat border crossers with prior deportations would face the risk of federal prosecution and jail, but the Title 42 policy has removed any threat of consequences, agents say.

Border Patrol has invested heavily in surveillance technology along the border in recent years, using aerial drones, trail cameras and solar-powered portable towers with extensive reach. The cameras can’t reliably identify individuals, and CBP officials acknowledge there is a risk of double-counting when, for instance, a group is stopped in one location and breaks up, appearing on camera as a separate group elsewhere.

CBP reported very high got-away rates in the 1990s and early 2000s when single adults from Mexico comprised the vast majority of illegal crossers. But DHS has invested heavily since then, more than doubling the size of Border Patrol while adding barriers, roads, cameras and sensors.

A 2017 report by DHS’s Office of Immigration Statistics looking mostly at data from the Obama administration estimated that 55 to 85 percent of attempted illegal border crossings were unsuccessful, up from 35 to 70 percent a decade earlier.

“Available data indicate that the southwest land border is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before,” the report stated, noting that the number of arrests made by U.S. agents had fallen to its lowest point since the 1970s.

That trend did not hold, and during the last major migration surge in 2019, U.S. agents took nearly 1 million migrants into custody, including record numbers of family groups.

Border officials said got-away numbers rose significantly that year but were not as high as they are now.

CBP last year produced a fictional video, “The Gotaway,” that depicts a man sneaking into the country and immediately murdering the first person he encounters on U.S. soil. The agency removed the video from its YouTube channel but restored it on an agency Facebook account several weeks later.

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