EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Federal agencies are trying to streamline their processes to quickly get unaccompanied children out of detention and decide which migrant families get to stay or are sent back to Mexico, a U.S. official said.

This, as the number of people trying to enter the country without authorization is on pace to rise to levels not seen in 20 years and the profile of migrants coming across has shifted dramatically.

“What we are seeing now is less of the population we can expel immediately and more that is being transferred to (the Department of) Health and Human Services and our non-governmental organization partners,” said a senior U.S. Border Patrol official who spoke with reporters on Friday on condition of anonymity.

Single adults, mostly male and most from Mexico, used to be the norm up to a few years ago. Now, about half of the unauthorized migrants are coming from Central America, Ecuador, Brazil and Cuba and about half are either unescorted children or family units.

“That certainly creates a challenge for us, the fact that we have to coordinate with other agencies to include HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” the official said. “We would like to transfer unaccompanied children as quickly as we possibly can within 72 hours, which we are mandated to do. Unfortunately, on any given day we may have upwards of 9,000 people in custody, which has certainly put a strain on our resources.”

That means migrant children sometimes spend up to a week in detention. Processing facilities in South Texas are overcrowded and that’s why hundreds of migrants, including families, are being flown elsewhere for processing.

Some of those migrant families, including many who travel with small children and babies, are then expelled to Mexico under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Title 42 emergency order to prevent cross-border spread of COVID-19. The official said many families with “tender age children” under 7 years of age aren’t being expelled to Tamaulipas, which is across the border from South Texas.

Border Report previously quoted advocates in Mexico saying child welfare agencies don’t have adequate facilities to temporarily house migrant children returned by the U.S. Tamaulipas is also the site of fierce drug cartel fighting, and late last year, 12 of its police officers were arrested in connection with the murder and incineration of 19 Guatemalan and Mexican migrants and rival cartel smugglers.

The Border Patrol official said HHS and ORR are now part of an internal database to speed up the processing of migrants at border processing stations.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent delivers a young asylum seeker and his family to a bus station on February 26, 2021 in Brownsville, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

“We’re still able to leverage Title 42. In fact, probably on half the encounters that we see along the southwest border we’re still afforded the opportunity to exercise Title 42. But if they have a tender age child, which is somebody below the age of 7, then we process them” through the immigration court system, he said. “We continue to repatriate as many people as we possibly can … if you were to look at our current numbers right now, we (release) about 2,000 family units out of the 6,000 we may have (in custody) any given day.”

Those tapped for release are scheduled for COVID-19 testing by contractors in South Texas and by community partners in other areas.

The senior Border Patrol official also addressed the involvement of the Mexican drug cartels in the ongoing migrant surge.

“Cartels or transnational criminal organizations are taking advantage of the situation that we’re in. […] They charge every single person that comes across that border,” he said. The cartels are so sophisticated that they’re constantly switching the entry points they chose for migrant families, children and single adults to illegally come into the country.

So just like it’s working with human services agencies and nonprofit partners on humanitarian assistance, the Border Patrol is cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Justice Department agencies to detect smuggling networks and identify their assets, the senior Border Patrol official said.

“And so, we are going to do everything we can to take the fight to the criminal organizations. If you’re involved in transporting migrants from the southern border of Mexico to the US, we’re going to do everything we can to (go after) the proceeds that you’re benefiting from this illegal trade,” he said.

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