BY Julián Aguilar

The number of undocumented families crossing the southern border to seek asylum continued to surge in February after border agents witnessed a surge of unauthorized crossings during the first part of the federal government’s current fiscal year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said Tuesday.

From Oct. 1, when the federal government’s 2019 fiscal year began, through February, about 136,150 family units were apprehended on the southwest border — a 338 percent jump from the same period last year, when 31,100 families were apprehended, according to CBP statistics released Tuesday.

The biggest increase was in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which also includes New Mexico. During the first five months of this fiscal year, about 36,300 family units were apprehended — a 1,689 percent increase from the same period last year, when 2,030 were apprehended.

“This increased flow presents … both a border security and a humanitarian crisis,” CBP commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said at a press conference Tuesday. “[It] challenges our resources and personnel and is negatively impacting border security.”

The latest figures were released as President Donald Trump continues to push for his long-promised barrier on the southwest border. The president issued an emergency declaration last month that would shift billions in Department of Defense funds to pay for constructing the barrier. The U.S. House has already voted to block the emergency declaration, and the Senate could do the same later this month if Democrats and a handful of Republicans join forces to oppose the president’s move.

On Tuesday, McAleenan also plugged the barrier as a way to deter migrants from crossing. But he said another potential solution would be to change asylum laws that allow families to be processed and released quickly, which he said allows for a prolonged stay in the U.S.

“The system is well beyond capacity and remains at the breaking point,” he said. “We know what is driving these trends. These increases in traffic are a direct response from smugglers and migrants to the vulnerabilities in our legal system.”

Some analysts have said the surge in families crossing between ports of entry is a result of the administration’s policies. Last fall, Customs and Border Patrol agents began intercepting migrants on international bridges to turn back potential asylum-seekers, telling them that only a small number could be processed each day.

“Part of the [surge] is a confluence of factors,” Jessica Bolter, a researcher with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, told the Tribune last week. “Smugglers do learn quickly about the most effective routes to bring people into the country, and [turning away asylum seekers] is likely to cause increased illegal crossings and also to cause people to go to remote ports of entry.”