WASHINGTON -- Border agents saw a spike in August in the number of unaccompanied minors and families apprehended along the southern border, but numbers are not back to the crisis level they were last summer, according to figures released Monday by the government.
Agents apprehended about 4,500 children traveling without their parents in August, along with about 5,200 families, usually mothers traveling with children, according to Customs and Border Protection. That is up from July, when border agents apprehended about 4,200 unaccompanied kids and about 4,600 families.
The figures are a considerable setback given the progress made since last year's border crisis, when agents apprehended about 68,000 unaccompanied minors along the border and about the same number of family units. Most of them were from Central America and aiming to get asylum to stay in the U.S. The surge in numbers fueled criticism of President Barack Obama's immigration policies, which Republicans said had encouraged people to come, and a response that immigration advocates said was too harsh to those who made it here.
The number of unaccompanied children and families apprehended this year is still lower than the same period last year, and general apprehensions are "at near-historic lows," Carlos Lazo, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said in a statement. Comparing this fiscal year to the same period last fiscal year, apprehension of family units is down 48 percent, while the number of unaccompanied children is down 46 percent.
Lazo said in the statement that the agency will "continue to monitor the situation closely." After last year's surge, the administration launched a public awareness campaign in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico telling parents that the journey to the U.S. is dangerous and there is no guarantee that children or families will be allowed to stay. The Department of Homeland Security is "renewing" that campaign, Lazo said.
"We are aware that smugglers, or 'coyotes,' often use misinformation about current immigration policies and practices to lure individuals seeking to cross the border illegally to employ their services," he said. "Too often, migrants have tragically perished or been seriously injured at the hands of criminal smugglers who have no regard for human life."
Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Josh Earnest it was "a surprising uptick" and that the administration is taking it "very seriously." He declined to speculate on whether discussion over a border wall could be making people in other countries feel they need to hurry to the U.S.
"It's hard to know exactly what may or may not be causing these latest numbers," he said at a press briefing. "The other thing that's true is these numbers are a snapshot of one month and they are an aberration of the trend that we've seen over the longer term. So we're going to continue to be vigilant."