WASHINGTON — The Biden administration took steps Wednesday to address surging migration to the border, restoring a program allowing some Central American children to apply from their home country for admission to the United States and searching for additional housing for the increasing number of young migrants who have been detained after crossing from Mexico.

Facing intensifying pressure over the prolonged detention of migrant children, Roberta S. Jacobson, a special assistant to President Joe Biden overseeing border issues, announced the restart of an Obama-era program that allowed children in Central America to apply for protection in the region and avoid making the dangerous journey north.

That program and a $4 billion investment in Central America have been framed by the administration as tools to addressing the poverty, persecution and corruption that have pushed vulnerable families to seek sanctuary in the United States. But the long-term strategy to deter illegal migration is running up against the immediate challenge of how to process thousands of migrant children at the border.

Troy Miller, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said on Wednesday that 9,457 children were detained at the border without a parent in February, up from more than 5,800 in January. Detentions of unaccompanied minors in February more than doubled compared with the same period in 2020.

Officials apprehended a migrant along the border or at its entry ports more than 100,400 times in February, a roughly 28% increase from the prior month. Most of those migrants — more than 70,000 — were single adults rapidly turned back south under a pandemic emergency rule.

The Biden administration has broken from the Trump administration in letting children into the United States to make good on the president’s promise to be more humane at the border. But Biden now faces the challenge of processing migrant children quickly out of border jails and into shelters.


By Monday, the number of children stuck in border detention facilities had tripled to more than 3,250, according to federal immigration agency documents. More than 1,300 of those children were held longer than the three days allowed by law before they are required to be moved to shelters.

“We continue to struggle with the number of individuals in our custody,” said Miller.

Republicans are framing the situation as a crisis of Biden’s making. Rep. James R. Comer, R-Ky., on Wednesday called the increase in migration a signal “to the world that our immigration laws can be violated with little, if any, consequence.”