PHOENIX — According to an analysis by ABC15, encounters of unaccompanied minors (UAC) at the border are already 25% higher than every other year since records began tracking them in 2010.
U.S. Homeland Security reports more than 19,000 unaccompanied migrant children were stopped at the Mexican border in July. The preliminary number exceeds the previous high set in March.
According to ABC15 data analyst, Garret Archer, adding July’s 19,000 preliminary data puts 2021 over 50% from the next highest year - which is 2019.
ABC15 data analysis shows there’s an established seasonality when it comes to migrant encounters at the southwest border. Records show for the past 20 years, the number of encounters goes up from December to March.
The drop usually happens during the hottest months, but between June and July of this year, the Tucson sector has seen an increase in groups of unaccompanied migrant children seeking asylum.
The ABC15 investigators visited the Arizona-Mexico border, in the Tucson sector, where the U.S. Border Patrol reports a 189% increase in unaccompanied children encounters from last year.
“That's one of the alarming things we keep seeing more often, the last couple of weeks we had at least six of these groups,” said Jesus Vasavilbaso, a border patrol agent for the Tucson sector.
Friday morning, ABC15 journalists witnessed the moment border patrol agents encountered a group of 60 migrants, 40 of them unaccompanied children.
“The suffering of these unaccompanied migrant children, we don’t know what they’ve been through,” Vasavilbaso stated.
In the group we observed, there were parents carrying babies. The children seemed thirsty and had to sit down on the hot dirt in the middle of the desert as they waited for agents to do questioning.
An EMT border patrol agent soon started asking medical questions, and separated children by age group.
“We try to take them from the place where they’re at, out of the elements. We start with the youngest, those are the first ones to get transport and then we’ll move on until we can safely transport all of them,” said Vasavilbaso.
It took time to bring multiple vehicles to transport all of them to the nearest station. Children as young as five years old waited nervously, unaware of where they were and what’s next for them.
The majority of the people in the group were from Guatemala and others from Nicaragua. In tears, a Guatemalan father traveling with his son told ABC15 he left his country after losing his home during last year’s hurricanes.
Since the pandemic started, most single adults and family units, like this father and son, have been expelled back to Mexico under a policy called Title-42.
It's billed as a public health policy to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The only exceptions to this policy are children. Sources tell ABC15, some families are deciding to separate after being expelled.
But by doing this, U.S. Border Patrol officials say children are being put in the hands of human smugglers.
ABC15 caught the interaction on camera as agents talked to human smugglers through the border fence:
Border patrol agent: "How much did they pay you?"
Alleged smuggler: "Nothing"
Border patrol agent: "Yeah right you do this for free."
“They’re taking advantage of these people, of the necessity of these people,” stated Vasavilbaso.
The same message is being shared by a father traveling alone with the group.
“It’s very sad cause I have kids and I wouldn’t let my kids run through that risk, but everyone knows what they’re going through,” said the migrant father.
He says while in Mexico, the group had to run and cross a river after some men started approaching them.
Reporter: "Were they chasing you guys?"
“It wasn’t chasing, but I saw them and I didn’t know them and they say they kidnap here.”
Many of them were thankful to be apprehended today.
“I’m here, I’m blessed and I really feel protected in the hands of the border patrol,” expressed the migrant father.