ROMA, Texas – As darkness sets on the Rio Grande, U.S. Border Patrol agents hear pumps inflating rafts across the river in Mexico. It is about to get busy.
Within an hour, about 100 people have been dropped off in the United States, including many families with toddlers and children as young as 7 traveling alone. All of them wear numbered yellow plastic wristbands that look like they could be used to get into a concert or amusement park, and everyone rips them off and tosses them on the ground after setting foot in the U.S. Large black letters on the wristbands read, “Entregas," or “Deliveries,” apparently a mechanism for smugglers to keep track of migrants they are ferrying across the river that separates Texas and Mexico.
Roma, a town of 10,000 people with historic buildings and boarded-up storefronts in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, is the latest epicenter of illegal crossings, where growing numbers of families and children are entering the United States to seek asylum.
U.S. authorities reported more than 100,000 encounters on the southern border in February, the highest since a four-month streak in 2019. Encounters have averaged about 5,000 people per day throughout March, which would be about a 50% increase over February if those figures hold for the entire month, according to a senior Border Patrol official, who spoke to reporters Friday on condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary figures.
More than 16,000 unaccompanied children were in government custody as of Thursday, including about 5,000 in substandard Customs and Border Protection facilities.
President Joe Biden, whom many migrants see as more welcoming than his predecessor, pushed back on suggestions that his administration’s immigration policies are responsible for the rising numbers. At his first news conference since taking office, Biden said Thursday that the government will take steps to more quickly move hundreds of migrant children and teenagers out of cramped detention facilities.
On the Rio Grande, a smuggler balked when a U.S. agent asks him to land downriver on a rare patch of sand, complaining that another agent punctured his raft days earlier. The agent reassures him and negotiates a landing away from gnarly branches.
“Children aboard,” another smuggler shouts to authorities.