U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have released more than 160,000 illegal immigrant family units into the country this fiscal year, according to officials.
About 87.5 percent of the family units who are released into cities across the U.S. reportedly fail to appear for their court hearings.
"The overwhelming majority of individuals, particularly the family members who are coming across, in fact, are not attending their, even their first hearings," said Nathalie R. Asher, acting chief of ICE's deportation branch on Wednesday.
Asher, along with Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, and Department of Homeland Security's Manuel Padilla Jr., among others, testified during the Senate Judiciary Border Security and Immigration Subcommittee hearing on, "At the Breaking Point: The Humanitarian and Security Crisis at our Southern Border."
Top immigration officials urged Congress to provide more funding and legal means to address the security and humanitarian crisis at the southern border.
They asked Congress to modify a 2015 court ruling, known as the Flores agreement which prevents agencies from lengthy detentions of minors and family units. They argued that the decision has sent a message to smugglers and migrants that as long as migrants are traveling with a child they can be released quickly into the country.
Last month, Border Patrol agents apprehended 98,977 illegal immigrants. Over the same period, Border Patrol officials identified 3,443 fraudulent family unit claims.
"The fraud, the exploitation, is rampant, and it's not stopping," Asher said.
Only about 12 percent of those seeking asylum actually qualify at the end of the process, Padilla said, adding that initial screenings are extremely lenient.
And more than 12 million illegal immigrants are residing in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's December 2018, "Population Estimates," report based on 2015 data.
The surge of illegal immigrants crossing the border has reached its highest level in more than a decade.
Why do the numbers keep increasing?
There's big money in human trafficking and it's causing a major surge in illegal immigrants sneaking across the border.
"One of the main drivers for the populations we're seeing right now is that organized crime is very, very knowledgeable of our laws," Padilla told Congress.
Human smugglers know that U.S. laws won't allow the government to hold a child in detention for longer than 20 days.
"From interviews that we have done with the families that we have been apprehending, they are hearing that message loud and clear," Provost said during the hearing. "They are hearing it from the smugglers, they are hearing it through media, down in the northern triangle, as well.
"And they don't understand the risk and the dangers that the trip is going to bring, I don't believe," she added.
Immigration officers find numerous dead illegal immigrants during their patrols.
Both young women and men report they were sexually assaulted during their journeys to the U.S. And minors are at the greatest risk of sexual assault, Provost said.
What did the lawmakers say?
Republican lawmakers assured the agency officials it would address the problems at the border.
"This is an emergency situation," subcommittee chairman Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. "This problem will only continue to grow without our intervention."
But Democrats argued that the crisis was created by President Donald Trump.
They claimed the Trump administration's policies have worsened the border situation, pointing to the government shutdown earlier this year over the border wall.
"Let's not forget that earlier this year, the president forced the longest government shutdown in history in an effort to get Congress to pay for a [border] wall that Mexico was supposed to build," Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.-D) said. "The Trump shutdown paralyzed immigration courts … and added to the backlog of cases.
"The reality is, the Trump administration's policies have made our borders less secure, and many times undermined our American values. When the president threatens to shut down the border, it's like a neon sign that smugglers and others use to encourage desperate families to flee [to the United States] as quickly as possible."
But Cornyn said it's time for Congress to work together to solve the border crisis.
"I urge my colleagues to work with us to try to solve this problem. We need to quit looking at this through a political lens," Cornyn said.
Provost warned Congress that if it doesn't act soon, "we will lose control of the border."
"I could never have envisioned that today, agents would spend at least 40% of their time as child care providers, medical caregivers, bus drivers, and food service workers," she said. "Every agent that I pull off the line to process and care for families and children increases the risk that illegal border crossers will get past us, including those smuggling drugs and other contraband.
"Simply put, we have been forced to put our border security and our national security at risk."
On Tuesday, in a win for the Trump administration, a federal court has ruled that U.S. immigration authorities can make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico until their claims are processed.