The rural Arizona border community of Gila Bend declared a state of emergency this week following a significant change in U.S. Border Patrol operations that has the agency dropping migrant families off in tiny desert towns with scarce resources to receive them.
“It’s 30 miles to the next type of town — and that’s 30 miles of open desert,” Mayor Chris Riggs said on Tuesday. “Come July and August, we’re going to be finding bodies.”
The town council of Gila Bend, population 2,000, voted unanimously in favor of the emergency declaration. Riggs told Arizona’s Family, a local TV news outlet, that he and his wife recently used borrowed vans to personally drive 16 people — Chilean and Venezuelan families with young children — some 70 miles northeast to Phoenix.
Gila Bend is not alone. In the unincorporated community of Ajo, 40 miles to the south, the Border Patrol has dropped off dozens of people in the past week. The town has no hospital, no fire department, and no police force. With around 3,700 residents, Ajo is surrounded by a vast expanse of federal lands that include some of the Sonoran Desert’s deadliest and most remote terrain. In 2020, when Arizona broke a 10-year record for the most human remains recovered in a single year, many of those bodies and bones were found in the valleys and washes outside Ajo.
Aaron Cooper, executive director of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, a community organization that often serves the functions of a local government in Ajo, said the first group of migrants was dropped off last Friday. There were 21 people, Cooper said; a total of 54 people have been dropped off in Ajo since the shift in policy began, and 38 more are expected to arrive today.
“It’s been all family units to date,” Cooper told The Intercept. “No individual females or males and no unaccompanied children. It’s been mostly mothers with young kids — kids from age 2 up to 13.” Many of the families have been from Venezuela, he added, but Cubans and Chileans have arrived as well as well.
“We’ve managed to kind of hustle and pull together something that will work short term until a better solution is devised. But we’re not equipped to do this indefinitely.”
In response to the drop-offs, community members have stitched together a patchwork system to test families for Covid-19 and then transport them more than 130 miles east to Tucson, where the Border Patrol has historically taken the people agents apprehend in the desert. Cooper said Pima County officials have provided support in responding to the new policy — the Pima County Board of Supervisors recently held an emergency meeting to discuss a potential contract for transportation of asylum-seekers — and that the community has also worked closely with Casa Alitas, a Tucson-based shelter that has long provided services for migrants moving through Arizona.
“They did a great job of helping us really kind of stay in our lane and figure out what the most effective response might be, which in this case was to develop kind of a temporary transportation hub to, as quickly as possible, get folks Covid tested, rapid Covid tested, and then get them on transportation to the Casa Alitas Welcome Center,” Cooper said.
The system is holding together for the moment, Cooper said, but “it’s not the sort of thing that is going to be able to have a long life cycle without breaking down.”
“We’ve managed to kind of hustle and pull together something that will work short term until a better solution is devised,” he said. “But we’re not equipped to do this indefinitely.”
In Arizona, the Border Patrol’s shift in policy is the result of several factors, including an increase in unaccompanied migrant children seeking asylum, the interplay between a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule known as Title 42 and the Mexican government’s response to it, and a court-ordered injunction concerning deplorable conditions in Border Patrol detention cells in the state.
Title 42, which went into effect this time last year, allows Border Patrol agents to rapidly expel unauthorized border crossers without a hearing. Though promulgated by the CDC with the stated purpose of stopping the spread of Covid-19, the invocation of Title 42 was the brainchild of senior Trump administration immigration adviser Stephen Miller, and it went into effect over the objections of public health professionals within the agency. From an arrest in the field to expulsion from the country, the entire process can take less than two hours.
“The unique challenges of the pandemic require additional authorities, such as the CDC order known as Title 42, to allow DHS to effectively protect both the health and safety of migrants and our communities from the spread of COVID-19,” Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, said in a statement to The Intercept. “The border is not open, and the vast majority of people are being returned under Title 42.”
With more than 530,000 expulsions and counting, Title 42 has been the primary way in which the Border Patrol has removed unauthorized border crossers and asylum-seekers over the past year. Though the Trump administration’s unprecedented practice of expelling unaccompanied children by the thousands came to an end late last year, the American Civil Liberties Union’s top immigration litigator has said that President Joe Biden’s continued use of Title 42 as a border enforcement deterrent is “flatly illegal.”
In recent weeks, the White House has gone to great lengths to deliver the message that the border is closed and that asylum-seekers should wait until a more agreeable time to exercise their rights under domestic and international law.
In his first press briefing since taking office, Biden said on Thursday that his administration was doing its best to repel as many immigrants as possible. “We’re sending back the vast majorities of families that are coming,” the president told reporters. The administration’s efforts to expel every migrant who is not an unaccompanied child have been complicated, however, by Mexican laws and policies governing the migrant populations that the country is willing to receive. According to CBP data shared with The Intercept, the Border Patrol expelled roughly 88 percent of the people it deemed eligible for Title 42 in Arizona last month. Biden said his administration is negotiating with Mexico to see to it that the country resumes receiving migrant families with children.
“I think we are going to see that can change,” the president said, adding that asylum-seeking families “should all be going back.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have taken the position that Biden is not doing enough and that a more muscular, militarized response is needed to confront would-be asylum-seekers. On Friday, 19 Republican senators participated in a photo op in South Texas, cruising down the Rio Grande in gun boats with heavily armed state police. Meanwhile, in Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey tweeted that he was ready to partner with the federal government to “resolve the issues at the border,” signaling that he would call up the National Guard.
Historically, migrants apprehended in the Arizona desert have been taken to a nearby Border Patrol station before being transferred to a second location, often Tucson, for the next stage of their journey through the nation’s interlocking criminal and immigration systems. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, most migrants who were not part of a family unit would first be prosecuted criminally at Tucson’s federal court under a program known as “Operation Streamline” before being moved into the immigration system. The process for families could be more complicated and dependent on individual circumstances but still involved transfer from the desert into cities with available resources.
Now the Border Patrol is processing those individuals whom the agency cannot expel as fast as possible, terminating custody at the station level and then dropping them in the nearest possible population center.
In part, the Border Patrol’s shift is the result of an injunction stemming from a lawsuit focused on Border Patrol detention facilities in the agency’s Tucson Sector, a CBP official, speaking on background, told The Intercept. Referred to in Arizona as the “Jane Doe” suit, the lawsuit alleged that “men, women, and children” in Southern Arizona were held “in freezing, overcrowded, and filthy cells for days at a time in violation of the U.S. Constitution.” Following a trial last January, a federal judge ruled that migrants in the Tucson Sector may not be detained in holding cells at Border Patrol facilities for more than 48 hours unless the agency provides for their “basic human needs,” such as a bed with a blanket, healthy food, a medical assessment by a medical professional, and other requirements.
According to the CBP official, Border Patrol agents in Arizona are continuing to use Title 42 to expel migrant families back to Mexico. When that’s not possible — because Mexico won’t receive them or for other reasons — the Border Patrol will look to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the nation’s lead agency on interior immigration enforcement, to see if the family can be placed in what’s known as an “alternative to detention” program. If that’s not possible, then the family is processed and released on its own recognizance. The official said community stakeholders in Southern Arizona were first notified in January that the releases would likely occur.
“We were just saying be ready,” the official said. With a rising number of unaccompanied children entering Border Patrol custody, the official said the moment the Border Patrol was warning about has now come. Combined with the court injunction, he added, “our holding capability here is significantly lower than a lot of the other sectors.”
“There’s no local decision-making involved here. It’s nobody in our local station. It’s no organization in our community.”
Earlier this month, the Arizona Republic published a detailed account of the Border Patrol’s “dramatic shift in policy,” describing how the agency told local officials, churches, and aid organizations to expect hundreds of migrants to be dropped off in their communities, releases that would coincide with the state’s blistering summer months, when migrant deaths in the desert historically skyrocket.
According to the report, the Border Patrol dropped approximately 1,000 migrants off at three small border communities with little to no resources from mid-February through mid-March.
The amount of lead time the Border Patrol station near Ajo has given community leaders before drops are made has varied widely, Cooper said. “We’re pushing for more,” he said. “I think our local station is doing the best they can, but they often don’t have the full picture at the station level, and so they’re also responding on the fly.” It is not uncommon for the Border Patrol’s Ajo station to apprehend groups of migrants numbering into the hundreds. The community’s ad-hoc system cannot transport more than 28 people in a day, a fact that Cooper said he has stressed to local agents.
“We’ve done the best we can to message that this is not a local decision,” Cooper said. “There’s no local decision-making involved here. It’s nobody in our local station. It’s no organization in our community.” Right now, he said, the main goal is to get people where they need to go in a safe and efficient manner: “That’s what we’re all hoping comes out of this eventually.”