The Border Patrol’s Abdication in the Sonoran Desert

Customs and Border Protection is dropping asylum-seekers in remote border towns with few resources to receive them.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Ash Ponders for The Intercept

While much of the public’s attention has been focused on the thousands of unaccompanied minors currently in U.S. custody, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has quietly begun a policy of dropping off asylum-seekers in remote border towns along the deadliest stretches of the U.S.-Mexico divide.

This week on Intercepted: Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux travels to the Arizona cities of Ajo and Tucson, speaking to migrants and local volunteers about the dangers and uncertainty people are facing. Devereaux investigates how the Biden administration’s continuation of Trump-era policies like Title 42, which has been used to expel more than half a million migrants in the past year, jeopardizes the safety of asylum-seekers and exacerbates the humanitarian crisis at the border.


[Introduction music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Maryam Saleh: My name is Maryam Saleh, and I’m a features editor at The Intercept.

Earlier this month, Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux traveled to southern Arizona where he visited a small, rural, border town called Ajo. There, he witnessed a recent change in policy by the U.S. Border Patrol which, for the last couple of months, has been dropping off asylum-seeking migrants in tiny towns that have little resources. And what he witnessed there is that this change in Border Patrol policies that’s bringing people to towns like Ajo is straining the human aid networks in an area that is one of the deadliest areas along the border.

Ryan spoke to Intercepted Lead Producer Jack D’Isidoro about his reporting.

White House Press Secretary Jenn Psaki: The people who are being let in are unaccompanied children. That is a policy decision which we made because we felt it was the most humane approach.

Vice President Kamala Harris: Are we looking at overcrowding at the border, particularly of these kids? Yes. This is, however, not going to be solved overnight.

President Joseph R. Biden: The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just gonna let him starve to death and stay on the other side — no previous administration did that either. Except Trump. I’m not gonna do it.

Ryan Devereaux: Over these past several weeks, there’s obviously been a ton of reporting about everything that’s going on on the border. The apprehension of huge numbers of unaccompanied Central American children. These children have been moved into overcrowded facilities, there’s been a lot of conversation about whether Biden is presiding over a humanitarian crisis. That’s what a number of Republicans who flew down to the valley and took a tour on gunboats down the Rio Grande want the world to believe.

Senator Lindsey Graham: What he did is created a human tsunami that’s gonna come to the United States. He didn’t mean to, but I don’t think he understood—

RD: But I decided to look into something a little different.

My name is Ryan Devereaux, and I’m a reporter at The Intercept. I cover border and immigration enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security.

The Border Patrol in southern Arizona was beginning a practice of releasing somewhat significant numbers of asylum seekers into very rural, small, border communities in southern Arizona that have really no resources to receive them. The way that it had been done historically is the Border Patrol would, if they arrested people in the desert, take them to the custody at a local station, and then those folks would generally be moved to a bigger city — somewhere like Tucson, for example. What’s happening now with the change that started around mid-February, is that the Border Patrol is basically terminating its custody of folks at the station level, and then saying they are obligated under law to then release them at the nearest possible population center.

I recently flew down to the Arizona Sonora-Mexico border and spent a few days interviewing folks at migrant shelters on both sides of the border, talking to people about what they’re seeing, what they’re experiencing, to try to get a sense of how these first few months of the Biden administration are playing out. And how the community is responding to this pretty significant change in policy.

[People speaking in the background.]

RD: I was there for this drop-off that happened around 9 in the morning.

RD: What’s your name?

Guadalupe Alvarez: My name is Lupe.

RD: Lupe. 

GA: Guadalupe, so you can call me Lupe. It’s short. 

RD: What did you explain? What did you just explain to them?

GA: I tell them that we’re in Ajo. And then I tell them that it’s two hours from here to their next destination, but that they’ll be here for about an hour, in which time they’ll do the Covid testing, and we’ll bring them some snacks, and they can go to the restroom if they’d like. And just kind of give them an overview of what to expect.

RD: Ajo is this town of roughly 3,700 people surrounded by vast expanses of Sonoran Desert — federal lands, for the most part. There’s no police department, there’s no hospital, and there’s no local government. Resources are very thin. The Border Patrol rolls into this town, will release them into a tiny little park there, and volunteers receive them, and folks have their Covid tests. The volunteers there had set up this canopy for the new arrivals to come, they had folding chairs set out.

Rd: ¿Cómo te sientes ahora? 

Unknown speaker: Mejor. 

RD: One of the volunteers who is on hand there is John Orlowski. He’s a longtime volunteer with the Ajo Samaritans, which is sort of one of the most active humanitarian groups in that area.

John Orlowski: I was just explaining that this is going to look so peaceful because we’ve had 40. 

RD: He kind of explained to me how things have been working: Every morning, the volunteers get word from CBP about how many people to expect to arrive, and every afternoon, they get worried about how many people to expect leaving. The largest number they’ve had so far was 40 people.

JO: We’ve had a number of 30s, in their 30s. We’ve had three one day. Basically, the trend has been smaller — getting bigger. We’ve only had a couple of cases of family separations, not intentional separations.

RD: But separated in the process?

RD: John described to me that they have seen cases of family separations there in Ajo with folks that they are receiving. A grandmother, who was separated from her family because she didn’t have the right paperwork to be admitted into the country. She was subsequently moved to a different section of the border where she was allowed entry. This sort of dysfunction that these volunteers are trying to grapple with, and deal with, as they’re taking these people in.

JO: Today, none of these people have paperwork, because they forgot. And if we hadn’t caught that, all of these people, the likelihood of us sending them to Tucson and then figuring out how to get the paperwork to them, and not make a mistake, would have been pretty low.

RD: Border Patrol apparently forgot to provide the people that they were dropping off with the paperwork that they needed to prove that they were legally authorized to be in the United States and had the volunteers not noted that fact, these people could have been in a lot of trouble if they would have run into law enforcement later on in their journeys.

Once everybody has sort of gone through that process, they get on to buses that the volunteers have organized that will take them onward to Tucson or to Phoenix where they’ll move into a larger, more established shelter that has more resources, and then carry on with their journey from there.

RD: Y está donde?

Man: Mérida. 

RD: Mérida? Oh!

[Music fades out.]

Diego Piña Lopez: When I first started in 2016, it was all volunteer-based. So there was one part-time staff facilitating everything. As we grew to the monastery, where we have a 350 people a night, we had one— [fades out] 

RD: I visited Casa Alitas in the evening, the main migrant shelter there in Tucson. A load of folks had just been brought up from Ajo, we met up with Diego Piña Lopez, who is the program director there.

RD: Where were they from?

DPL: We have Russia, Mexico, Honduras. I’d say two people from Honduras.

RD: As we’re making our way deeper into the shelter, he mentioned that they’ve been sort of observing a fairly disturbing pattern in recent weeks of folks showing up to the shelter missing loved ones: people who they came with, spouses, family members were separated from them during the processing there at the border and they have no idea where they are now. He’s part of this WhatsApp group, this shelter-wide WhatsApp group where people who are working in these spaces share information on folks who are missing family members who want to report that they don’t know where their husband or wife is.

DPL: You can have a spouse being sent to Phoenix or Ajo, or I’m sorry [inaudible], to Mexico, or dropped off on the streets in Yuma at 11 o’clock at night or to Tucson. 

RD: Yeah. 

DPL: And it’s our job to reunify these families. 

RD: Yeah. 

DPL: You know, I think that’s terrible. 

RD: Yeah. 

DPL: And we’re seeing, on a consistent basis, that happening. There’s this missing person book that I have. This person that “can help me find my wife —” it’s just, here, let’s just pass the phone around, so everyone passes it, wipes it, passes it. And as I’m passing, I looked and there are six families that are missing a loved one. And I hear this story like, this woman is talking to this man— [fades out].

RD: They have been dealing — they, as in the sort of broader humanitarian aid community there — with family separation, in different forms, and under different administrations for years. It’s sort of one of these facets of the way our border security infrastructure manifests itself. There’s a lot of separating of families that happens. And that’s certainly happening right now on the border.

JB: There’s a new surge we’re dealing with now. It started with the last administration, but it’s our responsibility to deal with it humanely and to stop what’s happening.

KH: While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas: The message is quite clear: Do not come. The border is closed. The border is secure. We are expelling families, we are expelling single adults.

JB: The vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing, are being sent back.

RD: The people who are being dropped off in these rural drop-offs that I observed are the people who are making it in, obviously. And these are people who are pursuing asylum claims and they have sponsors and family members that they’re trying to meet up within the United States. And a lot of these folks that are turning up, especially in southern Arizona, in the areas that I looked at, a lot of folks from South America and the Caribbean countries and populations that the Mexicans aren’t accepting right now in the sort of Title 42 framework.

Title 42 is a sort of critical component to the story of what’s happening on the border right now and what’s been happening on the border for the past year. Title 42 is this obscure Centers for Disease Control law that the Trump administration, particularly Trump’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, turned to at the beginning of the pandemic, to sort of achieve his long-standing goal of linking migrants to disease as a means to kind of lock-down asylum at the border, which had been his one of his primary objectives throughout the Trump administration’s four years in office.

And what it did is it allowed for the Border Patrol to expel people when they encounter them. And these expulsions, they can happen on an average, we understand, in a couple hours — really quick. There’s no sort of hearings involved. And people are removed back to Mexico or they’re flown to their home countries.

This rule has been used over half a million times in the last year. And it’s used against asylum seekers, at least 13,000 unaccompanied children were expelled from the country under this rule. Under Title 42, they can basically take that person to custody, put them in the back of their truck, and drive them to the port, and say, “Goodbye.”

To interpret this as essentially just cutting off asylum for folks at the ports, I think is pretty fair. That’s certainly the way it’s been applied. And you have to remember that Title 42 followed Remain in Mexico, which followed metering. I mean, there have been these iterations of different policies over these last, now, going on five years, that have ratcheted up the pressure on asylum seekers at the border and really squeezed off any way for people to exercise their rights under international and domestic law to seek refuge in the United States. And in the case of Title 42 in particular, the government argues that this is a measure that’s necessary to prevent the cross-border spread of Covid-19. But at the same time, there’s still streams of traffic coming through the ports at the border every day. So the population — the  only real population — that this is really impacting our asylum seekers. And that’s why this rule has been challenged in the court. And it’s why critics say that it’s illegal. They say that it’s essentially just a scheme to deny asylum seekers their rights.

These policies have consistently produced an enormous amount of violence and suffering south of the border, and running right up to the border as well, and along it, and into the United States, too. There are people who have been waiting, who’ve been doing what they were told to do, who are still waiting, and who are desperate, and who feel very vulnerable in the communities that they’re in. And they’re being targeted in the same way that they were before.

There’s a lot of attention — rightly — being paid to the high numbers of unaccompanied Central American children in U.S. government custody right now, on U.S. soil. But it is only one part of a much larger story about what’s happening on the border, what’s been happening, what continues to happen under the Biden administration. And, at the center of that story, is a lack of access to asylum at U.S. ports, which is endangering the very groups of people that this administration purports to support.

[Credits music.]

Jack D’Isidoro: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.

You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is me, Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

Until next time, I’m Jack D’isidoro.

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