Border fence follows a hill east of the Nogales port of entry.

Hello from a plane returning from Tucson, where we spent all day yesterday and all morning today. It’s been busy:

  • We went to Nogales, on the border, and spent time with the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a Jesuit-run service and advocacy group that runs a shelter and dining facility on the Mexican side of the border. (WOLA gave KBI its 2017 human rights award.)
  • We visited the Nogales port of entry and talked with Mexican officials there.
  • In Tucson, we visited Casa Alitas, a small, volunteer-run, short-term shelter for asylum-seeking families released from Border Patrol and ICE custody, similar to the Yuma Refugee Ministry I wrote about on Wednesday morning.
  • We visited the Florence Project (named for the nearby Florence immigration detention center), where lawyers are representing asylum applicants and trying to reunite families with separated children.
  • We visited a monthly legal clinic taking place in a high school cafeteria, where volunteers were offering support and advice for citizenship, DACA, asylum, stays of removal, and other needs within the migrant community.
  • We visited a longtime public defender.
  • We had dinner with a local journalist.
  • We had repeatedly sought a meeting with Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector headquarters, where we have met with management twice during the past five years. After some back-and-forth, our request was routed to CBP in Washington, where a public outreach official said he’d try to help arrange a Tucson meeting, then stopped responding.

Messages from kids who’ve stayed at Casa Alitas.

Here’s some of what we learned:

“Zero tolerance”—Jeff Sessions’s effort to prosecute all improper border crossers—is causing misery, but has made only a modest difference in a sector where courts were already near capacity. In 2006 and 2008, Arizona’s border sectors were the first to pioneer “Operation Streamline,” a program that submits some apprehended border-crossers to federal prosecution, with daily trials of dozens of people at a time. Now operating everywhere along the border except California—where it will soon be rolled out—Streamline has operated continuously in Tucson for 10 years. In addition to being deported, migrants get a criminal sentence: usually, if it’s their first offense, “time served” in detention with no additional federal prison time. Proponents say this criminal penalty discourages recidivism (repeat border crossing), although the data don’t seem to support that.

Since Tucson was already Streamlining dozens of people per day, Sessions’s “zero tolerance” edict has only modestly sped the pace of prosecutions. The increase, though, has been enough to bring the federal court up to its capacity, which appears to be about 75 improper-entry cases per day. (By comparison, zero tolerance has raised federal court caseloads in McAllen, Texas, where far more migrants are apprehended, from 20-30 immigrants per day to 150 per day.) Full “zero tolerance is impossible,” one local advocate told me, because “they’d have to build new detention space in the courthouse.” The new policy is stretching prosecutors and judges, who have been given no additional resources to deal with the increased workload—just an order from the Department of Justice for “no dark courtrooms,” meaning they should use all available space all the time.

At the law clinic.

Because of these capacity issues, Tucson is not near zero tolerance. The main difference now, though, is that some of the defendants are asylum-seeking parents who have just had their children taken away from them. That wasn’t happening before. Nobody had a count of how many times this has happened in Tucson since the new policy went into effect. Many families, though, continue to be released without prosecution: every day, ICE hands over to Casa Alitas as many parents and kids as the volunteers can accommodate.

People can’t choose where they cross. They have no choice but to break the law. We really need to hammer away on this point. We heard it in both Yuma and Tucson:

  • Organized crime has had a lock on cross-border migration for at least the past 10 years. (Building border fencing made it easier for organized crime, because far fewer border miles are easy to cross, creating bottlenecks where cross-border activity is easier to control.) It’s difficult and dangerous to attempt to cross the border on your own, without a paid, cartel-approved smuggler.
  • This means that virtually all asylum-seeking families have to pay a smuggler.
  • The “correct,” legal way to cross the border and ask for asylum is to do so at an official port of entry. Under zero tolerance, this is the only method by which asylum-seekers can cross to avoid arrest and possible family separation.
  • Smugglers don’t care about the “legal” way to cross the border. Families have to cross where the smuggler tells them to. That would be in the territory where organized crime allows the smuggler to operate. That territory probably doesn’t include a port of entry.
  • So asylum-seeking families are forced to cross the border illegally, in Arizona often by climbing the fence and presenting themselves to Border Patrol.

Asylum seekers would much prefer to cross legally, but they cannot because of organized-crime conditions on the Mexican side. But zero tolerance means U.S. authorities will arrest and possibly separate them anyway, even as they claim a fear of return.

As in Yuma, most Central American families appearing in Tucson are Guatemalan. Casa Alitas also sees “lots of Brazilians, a sprinkling of Mexicans, fewer Hondurans, and even less Salvadorans.” As in Yuma, the Guatemalans, many of them indigenous people speaking Spanish as a second language, tell of increased gang violence, extortion, and threats even in the rural highlands.

Newly deployed National Guard troops working construction on the U.S. side of the border fence in Nogales.

The asylum-seekers’ line at the port of entry is long and slow. On the Mexican side of the Nogales port of entry, on a covered patch of sidewalk right up against the borderline and the gate leading into the U.S. facility, a dozen mats are laid out together and covered with blankets. Yesterday, 19 parents and kids, including some unaccompanied kids, were sitting on these mats, waiting for the CBP officers guarding the gate to grant them permission to enter and petition for protection. (This is also new: CBP officers are now ensuring that nobody crosses the line onto U.S. soil, and approaches the counters where inspection actually happens, without first showing proper documents. In Nogales, they ensure that nobody passes by standing behind the gated turnstile, which they keep from rotating by blocking it with an orange construction cone.)

It is hot. Some of the parents waiting have books and phones; there are donated toys for the kids. Volunteers, from KBI and from Nogales shelters, bring water and snacks. They’re very much out in the open, alongside the port of entry’s pedestrian lane, so reporters come and snap photos of them, which they do not like (and which is why we have no photos of them). (Added 3am: looks like the Washington Post ran a photo of them this afternoon.)

The 19 awaiting their turn at the entrance are those who have been waiting in Nogales the longest: 10 days for those at the front of the line. KBI and local shelters have set up a system of access to the port of entry so that everyone need not spend 10 days out in the open. Yesterday, a total of 113 people were waiting their turn to talk to CBP, about 48 families. More than half of the families are awaiting their turn at the KBI shelter.

At the head of the line were two mothers and their kids from the highlands of Guerrero, Mexico. They told of an untenable situation in their home town, which lies near violently contested poppy fields and heroin trafficking routes. Since March, armed groups had killed one mother’s sister-in-law. They had cut off the town’s electricity and were prohibiting anyone from repairing it. The community is confined, and food and basic goods were running short. Schools are closed. On the day they fled, a shoot-out was happening in the middle of town. In the past three months, the local armed groups had begun targeting women and children more specifically.

CBP officers at the Nogales port are only processing about six people a day, a humanitarian worker accompanying the families told me. Her “strong sense” is that it was processing more in the past, before zero tolerance increased traffic at the ports of entry by making them the only way to seek asylum without getting prosecuted. In Nogales, she said, a deliberate slowdown at the behest of an anti-immigrant president can’t be ruled out—the port of entry has holding capacity for 47 people, and while other “inadmissible” arrivals may take up some room, space alone probably doesn’t explain why they can only accommodate six people per day.

On the other hand, she said, the Nogales port suffers from severe personnel shortages, which slow paperwork and transportation. CBP’s port-of-entry force, the Office of Field Operations, is about 4,000 officers short of its “workforce model” nationwide, and Nogales is one of the most short-staffed ports along the U.S.-Mexico border. It has been operating with CBP officers transferred temporarily from airports, who may be less familiar with the context and dynamic of the asylum seekers showing up there.

I have a very big backpack.

The number of deportees from Mexico remains high. As they travel with smugglers, Central American kids and families are not very visible in Nogales or Yuma. They tend not to stop by the KBI dining facility, for instance, where only 8 percent of the migrants who pass through are Central American. Most of those at the comedor—1,000 people in May—are Mexicans who have just been deported. Of those, about 35 percent are ICE deportees who were detained in the interior of the United States, and may have been living there for years. The rest are recent border-crossers. Of these, many were imprisoned for improper entry, but not all of them. While San Luis, across from Yuma, saw a decrease in deportees since May, Nogales has not.

A young Honduran man said he broke both of his phones’ screens when he fell off of the “La Bestia” train.

As elsewhere, the effort to reunite separated asylum-seeking families is a horrific mess. “It’s really hard to find them,” a lawyer at the Florence Project told us. Attorney’s only get access to separated parents—that is, knowledge that they exist—once they’re about to appear before a judge, and ensuring that they have a chance to express fear to return to their country is not easy in the criminal system, which is not set up for that. It’s easier to find out that a separated parent and child are seeking asylum from the children, if the child is able to communicate that. In their Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities, the kids have more access to legal service providers, and can express fear of returning to their countries. ORR can then make the necessary contacts to find the parent and ensure that the asylum petition happens.

There are some amazing people in Tucson. In addition to the dedicated staff and volunteers at the organizations listed at the beginning of this post, we met some incredible volunteer attorneys and advisors offering up their services to some of the most vulnerable members of their community. There was only one actual immigration attorney at the legal clinic we visited because, in a lawyer’s words, “it’s an incredible business moment” for those who charge for their services. Instead, people are being helped by “a ragtag army” of tax lawyers, personal-injury lawyers, and specialists in other types of law, some of them retired.

We met a group of women who have guided 2,000 local people successfully through the citizenship and naturalization process in the past five years. Most remarkably, nearly all the volunteers are parents of DACA recipients, not citizens. “We want the others to become citizens so that then they will vote,” one DACA mom said.

Breakfast at the Kino Border Initiative comedor.

We were inspired and amazed by the people we met at the clinic, at the legal aid offices, at the shelters and dining facility. We salute them. And we especially salute the parents who, in order to save their kids from harm and to give them a chance to grow up free of fear, have uprooted themselves, traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, and are now facing uncertainty in shelters, in detention centers, and on the pavement outside the ports of entry.