Since Trump took office, congressional Democrats have sought to counter his hard-line immigration agenda by pointing to federal data that showed unauthorized crossings had, in recent years, fallen to “historic lows.” But after making the fewest apprehensions in 46 years in 2017, the head of Customs and Border Protection has warned that a recent surge of Central American families has left the agency at its “breaking point.”

For Democrats eager to draw a sharp contrast with Trump ahead of the 2020 presidential election cycle, the growing number of migrants being apprehended threatens to puncture a reliable talking point and force them into a fraught choice: sound heightened alarms and risk affirming Trump’s narrative of a border “crisis,” or play down the rising numbers and risk appearing indifferent or negligent.

“Yes, we are in a crisis situation at the border — a humanitarian crisis, a refu­gee crisis. What Democrats are trying to deal with is: Is this an immigration crisis? Is this about illegal immigration? Not really,” said Theresa Brown, a former CBP policy adviser who now works at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Neither side is characterizing this accurately. But it’s absolutely, 100 percent true that every part of our border management system is beyond capacity and completely overwhelmed right now.”