Migrant families walk toward a Customs and Border Patrol processing center near Mission, Texas, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
CNN  — 

The number of children arriving alone at the Southwest border to request asylum has been steadily increasing since April 2020, with the pace accelerating in the new year.

The US Border Patrol detained 9,300 unaccompanied children in February, up from 5,700 in January. A steep rise this early in the year suggests more families and children will arrive in the coming months. Previous migration waves have peaked in early summer — typically around May.

“What you have got to remember is this, is that March, April, May and June are the peak months,” said Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose district includes border cities Laredo and Rio Grande City. “So we’re going to see some big numbers.”

The sudden increase in children entering the US alone is being driven by the devastation left behind by two major hurricanes last year, the toll of the coronavirus pandemic and a perceived relaxation of enforcement. Most of the children are seeking safe haven from dangerous circumstances in their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.

“Poverty, high levels of violence, and corruption in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries have propelled migration to our Southwest border for years,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. “The adverse conditions have continued to deteriorate.”

Mayorkas said his agency is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the Southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” including more arrivals of unaccompanied children. Both the Biden and Trump administrations have been turning away single adults and families under a pandemic-related health order. The Biden administration, however, is no longer turning away unaccompanied children.

Typically, after being taken into Border Patrol custody, unaccompanied children have to be turned over within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is tasked with the care of migrant children.

HHS was until recently running their shelters at partial capacity to maintain Covid-19 distancing protocols, which had limited its ability to accept children within those first three days. This has forced children to wait in jail-like conditions at Border Patrol adult facilities for longer than the three-day legal limit.

As of March 18, more than 4,500 children were waiting in Border Patrol custody and 9,500 children were in HHS care — well above the 5,100 children in HHS care as of January 31.

It will take time to reunite them with a family member or release them to another appropriate sponsor. But that can take months. By the summer of 2020, the children remaining in custody had been in HHS care for nearly a year on average. The average length of stay for a child in HHS custody is currently 34 days, an administration official said.

HHS has released 131,800 children to US-based sponsors between October 2017 through January 2021. Of those, 43% were discharged to a parent or other legal guardian, 47% were sponsored by another immediate relative, and 10% were released to a distant relative or an unrelated sponsor.

FEMA is assisting the HHS with expanding its capacity to provide shelter to more children. Teenagers, who represent the majority of unaccompanied children, are also being transferred out of Border Patrol facilities to a temporary shelter at a Dallas convention center until they can be accepted by HHS.

President Joe Biden said he expects that these efforts to open additional shelters will provide enough beds for all of the unaccompanied children in US custody “by next month.”

“What we should be doing is making sure we provide beds for these children,” Biden said in a March 17 interview with ABC. “We will have, I believe, by next month enough of those beds to take care of these children who have no place to go. But they need to be taken care of.”

In the meantime, some 14,000 children — the more than 4,500 children waiting to be transferred out of Border Patrol facilities for adults and the more than 9,500 children in HHS custody — are waiting on the US government to decide their fate.

—Priscilla Alvarez and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report