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Illegal Border Crossings, Driven by Pandemic and Natural Disasters, Soar to Record High

Southern border apprehensions previously reached such high levels in the late 1990s, peaking in 2000, when many migrants who entered the country unlawfully were drawn to jobs in construction, food processing and restaurants.

As in the past year, most of those who entered were single adults from Mexico. Many of them tried more than once to sneak into the country, usually until they succeeded, because they did not face significant legal consequences, said Jessica Bolter, an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. She added that there were “lots of incentives for migrants to try to cross over and over.”

When the Trump administration first invoked the current public health rule, known as Title 42, officials said it was needed to avoid the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. But it has had the unintended consequence of encouraging hundreds of thousands of desperate people to make repeated attempts to enter the country. Many of those subjected to the rule are expeditiously returned to Mexico, often by bus, only to try again a few days later.

Before the public health rule was put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, migrants caught entering the country without authorization could be criminally prosecuted and detained for months.

In September, about 25 percent of the arrests were of repeat crossers.

The high rate of recidivism suggests the majority of border crossers in recent years have been caught, which was not the case during previous peaks. The number of Border Patrol agents has increased substantially in the last decade, and technology like heat sensors, cameras and drones makes it difficult to evade capture.

“There were not nearly as many agents, they had little technology, and there were a lot of easy places to cross,” said Jeff Passel, a demographer at the nonpartisan Pew Research Center who studies the population of those who enter without authorization. “Data shows the Border Patrol now catch almost everybody who tries to cross illegally.”

When Mr. Biden took office, the administration was aware of an uptick in the number of migrants heading north, but it appeared to be caught flat-footed by the large jump in the numbers that followed and by how long the trend has lasted.

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