New data from Customs and Border Protection released on Friday shows an increase in border crossing attempts and removals including many seeking refuge in the U.S.
Nearly 20,000 people attempting to cross the border in May were quickly sent back, accounting for about half of the 42,928 people forced into rapid removal proceedings since the order was enacted, according to CBP data.
"Implementation of COVID-19 policies allowed CBP to process and return, in under two hours, 96 percent of those subject to the Order, dramatically reducing human contact, the risk of spread, and the strain on U.S. healthcare facilities, helping the United States avert a public health disaster," the agency said in a statement.
The updated data reflects that at least 725 unaccompanied kids crossed without documents in April. That month, the Office of Refugee Resettlement -- tasked with finding homes for migrant children not immediately sent back -- received about 60 unaccompanied children.
The administration first implemented the public health order in March and extended it with indefinite limits last month.
The release of the new data comes the same week the administration faces its first legal challenges to the public health order. Lawsuits filed on behalf of a 16-year-old boy from Honduras and a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador, both who face possible deportation, aim to halt the rapid removal process across the border.
“These numbers suggest that the government is essentially trying to close the border down under the pretext that it’s necessary for public health reasons,” said attorney Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, which is leading both legal challenges. “We don’t believe it’s necessary and it’s patently unlawful to expel children and asylum seekers without an opportunity for a hearing.”
A federal judge is reviewing the legal challenge and a hearing is expected later this month.
The United Nations’ children’s agency UNICEF has attempted to independently track the numbers and reported recently that U.S. authorities sent at least a thousand children to Mexico and Northern Central America between March and April.
“For children on the move across the region, COVID-19 is making a bad situation even worse. Discrimination and attacks are now added to existing threats like gang violence that drove these children to leave in the first place,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.
Mexico had returned more than 400 migrant children to Guatemala and Honduras over the same period, the agency said in a statement.