Good morning from Yuma, Arizona, where we landed at about 4:00PM yesterday. We’re about half an hour’s drive from the Mexico border right now, and about the same distance from Arizona’s border with California. With this visit, since 2011 we on WOLA’s Border and Migration Program have now worked in seven of the nine sectors into which U.S. authorities divide the U.S.-Mexico border.
We’d never been to the Yuma sector before because its 126 border miles, 107 of them fenced off, had been quiet over the past 10 years. Yuma had scored near the bottom in the rankings of migrants apprehended, drugs seized, and Border Patrol agents stationed. Rather suddenly, though, starting last summer the Yuma sector moved to the number-two position among the nine border sectors in the number of asylum-seeking children and families turning themselves in to Border Patrol. It’s a distant second place: for every child or family member apprehended in Yuma last month, five were apprehended in Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley sector. But the growth in this quiet, remote region is puzzling.
We went straight from the airport to a local church that hosts the Yuma Refugee Ministry, a group of volunteers who, since 2013, have given a brief respite to asylum-seeking families that ICE releases from custody. The mostly Central American families get let go, after approximately four days of detention and processing, because ICE lacks space to detain them and because U.S. jurisprudence prohibits long-term detention of children.
The Ministry gives the families a place to sleep, eat, and get cleaned up while they await the bus or plane that will take them wherever in the United States that they plan to settle while undergoing their asylum process.
The mothers we saw at the Ministry came mostly from Guatemala; one was from Honduras and one from Chiapas, Mexico. All were wearing ankle bracelets: under an effort called “alternatives to detention,” parents who get released pending asylum applications must always wear tracking devices. Measures like this avoid the $319 per day cost of family detention while still guaranteeing that nearly all show up in immigration court.
Yuma-area volunteers started the Refugee Ministry after ICE started dropping off growing numbers of bewildered asylum-seeking families at a local Wal-Mart parking lot. The Ministry operates on a shoestring budget, sharing space with the church, and can only accommodate just over a dozen people at a time. Those whom ICE doesn’t take to the Ministry end up being dropped off hours away in Phoenix or Tucson, or most commonly at the Yuma bus stop (the city doesn’t have a bus terminal).
President Trump and other critics deride this practice as “catch and release,” and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has pledged to end it. His “zero tolerance” policy seeks to arrest all adults who cross the border between official ports of entry, which is a misdemeanor, even if they are seeking asylum. Under this policy, U.S. authorities are criminally charging parents and, since they can’t have their kids with them in prison, tearing their children from them and handing them off to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“Zero tolerance” isn’t yet happening 100 percent of the time. In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, the Border Patrol sector chief told the Washington Post, “We are trying to build to 100 percent prosecution of everybody that is eligible,” but they were only arresting about half.
That’s still the case in Yuma, too. Alma and Conor, the volunteers we spoke to at the Refugee Ministry, said that arrests and family separations are definitely happening, though they didn’t know how frequently—but ICE is still dropping off families as quickly as the Ministry can accept them.
The Yuma Refugee Ministry needs support. They need more volunteers: a problem has been indifference or even hostility toward migrants, even in this majority Mexican-American city. The Ministry needs food, refrigerators, laundry equipment, and mattresses.
Volunteers said the best way to help is to make a donation to Trinity United Methodist Church, specifying that it should support the Refugee Ministry. (The way to do that appears to be to go here, click “give online,” and type your amount into the “Yuma Refugee Ministry” field.)
Here are a few things that the volunteers, and the families staying there yesterday, told us.
- The Yuma sector has lots of border wall already. (According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, hard-to-climb “pedestrian fence” covers 47 percent of the sector. It is in those areas that Border Patrol apprehended 67 percent of border crossers in 2013-15, so most migrants don’t seem to be trying to get around the fence.) In most cases, volunteers said, asylum-seeking parents climb over the fence—carrying their small children or babies—and then turn themselves in to Border Patrol. The top of the fence is sharp, they say, and some parents show up with cuts.
- Despite the “zero tolerance” dictate that the only way to avoid arrest is to seek asylum at a port of entry (an official land border crossing), “only a few” families are showing up at the ports of entry. As elsewhere along the border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are standing on the line stopping would-be asylum-seekers and telling them to come back another day because they are at capacity. They are not doing this every day, however.
- Volunteers did not know why Yuma has seen this sharp increase in Central American children and families since last summer. One speculated that it could be that until recently, ICE was mostly not requiring parents to wear ankle bracelets.
- Families showing up at the ministry are mostly from Guatemala. (About half of Central American children and family unit members being apprehended nationwide are Guatemalan.) Of the 14 or 15 migrants there yesterday, all were Guatemalan except a family from Honduras and one from Chiapas, Mexico. Most of the Guatemalans are “very poor,” from very rural areas, often more comfortable speaking indigenous languages than Spanish, and unused even to being in cars. The Guatemalans are leaving for security reasons: “anyone who starts doing well economically, like a baker whose store is making money, starts getting extorted and threatened.”
- Arrivals of suspected gang members are unheard of. The Ministry, volunteers said, have had thousands of people come through over the past five years and only experienced two instances of petty theft. The families tend to be scrupulously honest.