U.S. Border Patrol agents made about 1.9 million arrests in 2021, a record high reflecting an upsurge in attempted crossings across the Mexican border, new data show.
About 20% of the migrants arrested for entering the country illegally last year were released into the U.S. to await hearings on their asylum applications, down from about 56% during a prior surge of illegal border crossings just before the pandemic began, the data show.
The data was disclosed in recent court filings related to a lawsuit against the Biden administration filed last year by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Texas. The suit seeks to block the federal government from stopping a policy begun in 2019 known as Remain in Mexico, which requires migrants to wait south of the border for their asylum claims to be adjudicated.
After Texas and Missouri filed their lawsuit last year, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to restart the Remain in Mexico policy, which originated under former President Donald Trump, while the case makes its way through court.
A Department of Homeland Security official said the Biden administration has limited releases into the U.S. largely by using a public-health law called Title 42, not by employing Remain in Mexico. President Trump started using Title 42 at the beginning of the pandemic to turn back migrants before they could claim asylum, and Mr. Biden has continued the practice.
Border Patrol agents are giving priority to removing foreigners under Title 42, the official said. Those who can’t be quickly expelled may be sent back to Mexico under the newly restarted Remain in Mexico to wait outside the country for their court hearings.
The release of migrants who illegally crossed into the U.S. to await asylum hearings has been widely criticized by Republicans and other proponents of a tough approach to immigration, who call it "catch and release."
Democrats and migrant advocates, meanwhile, have criticized the widespread ejection of asylum applicants to Mexico, after President Biden said in his campaign that he would cut back on the practice.
During meetings with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz last week, Border Patrol agents complained about migrants being released into the U.S., among other issues, according to videos of the incidents in Yuma, Ariz., and Laredo, Texas, posted online. A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson confirmed the meetings and locations.
During the Laredo meeting, agents engaged in a brief shouting match with Mr. Ortiz, as seen on the video.
An agency spokesperson said the recorded meetings were two of several along the border during a three-day trip, during which Mr. Mayorkas asked for agents’ feedback.
"Secretary Mayorkas’s priority for this trip was to meet directly with the workforce to hear about their experiences and address their needs," the agency said in a statement. "Secretary Mayorkas welcomes candor during these conversations, and appreciates and respects the opinions of each member of the [Customs and Border Protection] workforce."
Border Patrol agents released about 402,000 migrants last year into the U.S., roughly one-fifth of the total arrested for crossing into the U.S. illegally, and allowed them to stay in the U.S. until their immigration cases are decided, according to the government statistics in the court filings.
Most of the rest, a little over 1 million, were sent back to Mexico or their home countries under Title 42.
During the government’s fiscal year ended September 2019, Border Patrol agents made 851,508 arrests and released about 475,000 in the U.S., with instructions to report back to immigration authorities for their asylum hearings, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
Border Patrol agents have been releasing some migrants into the U.S. shortly after arrest since at least the Obama administration. The releases have been prompted by spikes in illegal border crossings, like those seen in the past year, when border facilities were at or beyond capacity. During the pandemic, capacity at Border Patrol stations and in temporary holding facilities has been reduced.
Former Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, who left the agency last year, said agents are frustrated with what they see as a lack of effort to stem the record flow of migrants.
"They don’t believe there is a light at the end of this tunnel," he said.