Good morning from Tucson, Arizona, where we arrived yesterday evening after a 220-mile drive through the desert from Yuma. We spent yesterday in Yuma and across the border in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora. We met with Mexican migration authorities (INM and Grupo Beta), with the Casa de Migrante migrant shelter in San Luis, with a U.S. federal law enforcement agency to whom we promised an off-the-record discussion, and here in Tucson with the Colibrí Center, which seeks to match relatives with the remains of unidentified migrants who die of dehydration or exposure on U.S. soil.
Very quickly—we’re getting an early start at the border in Nogales this morning, and I’ve got to go—here are a few things we learned yesterday.
- About 90 percent of migrants whom U.S. authorities apprehend in the Border Patrol’s Yuma sector are non-Mexican. of these, 88 percent are from Guatemala. Most are children and members of family-unit members. (Nationwide, only about half of children and families are Guatemalan.) Why so many Guatemalans here? The answer seems to lie in the preferences of migrant smuggling networks.
- As Yuma suddenly became the border’s number-two destination for children and families about a year ago, U.S. authorities’ holding facilities were at double their capacity, mostly with Guatemalan kids and families, for most of 2018. Over the first two weeks of June, though, the numbers plummeted by about half. They appear to be recovering in the past week, though; a possible reason is out-migration following the eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego volcano earlier this month.
- U.S. authorities usually deport about 11,000 Mexican citizens to San Luis each year (12,000 in 2017), or about 1,000 per month. That pace picked up to more than 1,500 per month in the first four months of 2018. In early May, though, things slowed down a lot, and the monthly total dropped to only about 500. During the first 3 weeks of June, CBP, ICE, and U.S. Marshals have dropped off only 263 Mexican citizens at the San Luis port of entry. Mexican officials don’t know why; the new “zero tolerance” policy of 100% criminal incarceration of improper border crossers could be a factor.
- Smugglers have not adjusted their routes in response to the new “zero tolerance” policy. They still encourage migrants to climb the fence and seek out Border Patrol, which today leads to arrest, prison, and family separation (and now perhaps family incarceration)—even for asylum seekers. This is largely because smugglers only control certain territories. If the official port of entry, where asylum-seekers can cross legally, is not in that smuggler’s territory, he cannot drop the migrants off there. This is important: it is now impossible to cross from San Luis without a smuggler, because of the territorial control that organized crime has consolidated since about 10 years ago. So migrants must hire a smuggler, and have no choice but to cross the border where that smuggler tells them to. In many cases, then, asylum-seekers are forced to commit the crime of “improper entry,” which gets them arrested, because they are not free to seek asylum the legal way at the port of entry.
- The Yuma sector is heavily fenced off, so even families who intend to ask Border Patrol for protection have to climb the fence to do so. They mostly climb over at a stretch of fence that is 1990s-era “landing mat” style (built from sheets of metal that the U.S. military used in Vietnam to create makeshift helicopter landing sites). Though easy to climb on the Mexican side, the ground is lower on the U.S. side, leading to a very long drop. Injuries, especially broken bones, are frequent.
- We saw no asylum-seekers waiting at the San Luis port of entry or at the shelter (which mostly receives deported Mexicans, not northbound Central Americans). The U.S. facility at the port of entry was quite empty at mid-day yesterday. Mexican authorities say there has been no increase in asylum-seekers coming to the port of entry.
- But three Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers were standing outside the facility, right on the borderline, demanding that we show documents in order to enter the facility. This is a new practice that has received much media attention: asylum-seekers have a right to ask U.S. officials for protection at a port of entry, but they must first step on U.S. soil. The CBP officers are keeping them from doing that. U.S. authorities say they are metering the flow of asylum-seekers so the port of entry does not get overwhelmed. Lawyers and advocates representing asylum-seekers say that in many cases they are illegally turning people away, saying for instance, “we’re full, come back tomorrow.”
- When deportees who have spent time in federal prison are returned to Mexico, “they come back skinny,” apparently underfed, according to two sources.
- When spouses are caught together and criminally charged, they are separated (going to male and female prisons). Upon their release, they have a hard time learning the other’s whereabouts. On the Mexican side of the port of entry, we spoke to two tearful women who had been deported moments earlier. Both had been in prison for “improper entry” for a month. Neither had any idea where her husband was.
- The women also had not had their belongings returned to them: identity cards, money, cellphones. U.S. migration authorities destroy belongings that go unclaimed after 30 days, and don’t necessarily transfer them to the Bureau of Prisons or U.S. Marshals. It is up to the migrants to ask the Mexican consulate to hold on to their things while they are incarcerated; these women didn’t know that.
- As is the case elsewhere along the border, newly deployed U.S. National Guard personnel are not on the borderline or in any situation that might involve contact with migrants or U.S. citizens. They are in rooms monitoring camera feeds, or helping to maintain and move vehicles and equipment.
- The remains of 44 migrants have been found in the deserts of Arizona’s Tucson sector between January and June 4th. That’s similar to the 57 remains found in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector between October 1 and May 30. The hot summer months, when the rate of deaths increases, still lie ahead. Most of those being found in Arizona appear to be recent Mexican deportees who lived in the United States for a long time and were seeking to be reunited with spouses and children in the United States.