Desperate Families and Gun-Toting Vigilantes Converge in Arizona After Title 42 Ends

As President Joe Biden swaps one asylum crackdown for another, the border’s lethality endures.

The border wall in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Sasabe, Ariz., on May 12, 2023. Photo: Ryan Devereaux/The Intercept

The travelers stood atop the steep, rolling hill. They were just a few steps north of the border wall, having passed through a gap in the towering steel barrier. They gathered beneath Coches Ridge, a remote feature of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona where, last summer, a white nationalist border vigilante chased an unarmed man into Mexico at gunpoint.

The group was small. A man, two women, and two children, a boy and a girl. Their bright shirts made them easy to spot against the green and gold of the desert. The boy waved his arms above his head as I drove nearer, like a shipwreck survivor on a deserted island. I rolled down my window. He looked to be about 8 years old, maybe 9. Just tall enough to peek over my door, he said hello in English. The man beside him looked exhausted and desperate. I asked if they needed help. They did.

It was the morning of Friday, May 12. Roughly 12 hours had passed since President Joe Biden lifted a public health order known as Title 42, which had strangled asylum access at the border for more than three years. He replaced the measure with a new suite of border enforcement policies that would have much the same effect.

Across the country, the headline was chaos. The details didn’t matter as much as the perception. Title 42 created a massive backlog of asylum-seekers south of the border, and now it was going away. The president’s critics did the smugglers’ advertising for them, repeating ad nauseam the lie that the border was now open and Biden wanted the migrants to become Americans.

In a press conference earlier in the week, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, outlined the new enforcement framework. “Our overall approach is to build lawful pathways for people to come to the United States and to impose tougher consequences,” he said. Simply showing up at the nation’s doorstep was no longer enough. Asylum-seekers could download an app and to join an electronic line now. Those who failed to seek asylum in another country first would not get in. Deportations would be fast-tracked, and new tweaks to the asylum interviews were aimed at making them harder to pass.

How it would all play out remained to be seen. “I think DHS is just absolutely terrified and clueless,” a senior asylum officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, told me while Mayorkas spoke on Thursday. The administration had reason to be concerned: The estimated arrival numbers were historic, and Republicans clearly smelled blood.

By the time the first day was through, the headlines imagining chaos were replaced by reports of calm across the border. While that may have been true in some parts, on a far-flung strip of border road east of the tiny community of Sasabe, Arizona, the first 24 hours in post-Title 42 America offered a grim suggestion of the days to come. Heeding the call of the state’s right-wing political leaders, armed vigilantes stalked and harassed humanitarian aid providers during the day and by nightfall rounded up migrant children in the dark. The events followed weeks of rising tensions that included the arrest of a longtime aid volunteer by federal authorities. Caught in the middle, as ever, were desperate families facing a deadly desert.

ALTAR VALLEY, ARIZONA- JANUARY 28: Crosses left by border activists mark the locations where the remains of migrants who died trying to cross into the United States through the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert were discovered, January 28, 2021 in the Altar Valley, Arizona. Over 220 deaths were reported in this section of the desert in 2020 and the number is probably much higher. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Crosses left by border activists memorialize migrants who died trying to cross into the United States through the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, on January 28, 2021.

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

An hour and a half southwest of Tucson, the beauty of the Buenos Aires refuge belies its capacity for lethality, and yet, people from around the world, kids included, cross the landscape in sneakers, without sufficient water or any real sense of where they are, all the time.


As Biden Continues Trump’s War on Asylum, Danger Mounts in the Deadly Sonoran Desert

Over the past two-and-a-half decades, ever since the government began enlisting the Sonoran Desert in its war on unauthorized migration, the office of the Pima County examiner in Tucson has recorded more than 4,000 migrant deaths along the state’s southern border. Nationwide, experts put the minimum death toll at around 10,000, though all agree the true count is undoubtedly higher. Last year was the deadliest on record.

The refuge has seen its share of migrant deaths, the most recent known case an unidentified man whose skeletal remains were recovered on the road running parallel to the border wall, just west of Coches Ridge, last October. The medical examiner estimated he had been dead for at least six months, maybe longer. The cause was unknown.

The man’s bones were found not far from the spot where the boy stood outside my truck on Friday morning. As usual, I had come to report but knew, as anyone who ventures into the Sonoran Desert’s backcountry should, that such an encounter was possible. The man in the group told me they had no water, no phone, and they had been walking through the wilderness for three days. They were from Ecuador. I asked if they wanted me to call the Border Patrol. The man said yes. I gave him the jug of water I had brought just in case and drove off to find cellphone service and call 911.

The Border Patrol agent who came rumbling down the road was gruff. I told him the situation. He asked if I knew that I was trespassing. While I was on a public road on public land, I knew the Border Patrol had recently adopted some novel interpretations of the law when it came to U.S. citizens passing through the area. I guided the conversation elsewhere. The Ecuadorians reported being in the elements for three days, I explained. They all say that, the agent replied, before driving off to collect the migrants waiting down the road.

They all say that because it’s almost always true. A day earlier, I had spoken to Dora Rodriguez, a Tucson-based borderlands activist. In the summer of 1980, Rodriguez was among a group of 26 Salvadoran refugees who were abandoned by their guide in the unforgiving expanse of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 150 miles west of Buenos Aires. Thirteen of Rodriguez’s companions lost their lives that day. She was 19 years old. It was the deadliest event of its kind at the time.

Today, Rodriguez is the director of Salvavision, an organization devoted to Salvadoran migrants and deportees. She also volunteers with Humane Borders, an aid group that maintains large water tanks in areas where migrants are known to die, and she’s a co-founder of Casa de la Esperanza, a migrant shelter in Mexico southwest of Buenos Aires. She knows what migrants passing through the Sonoran Desert face as well as anyone.

“On the Mexico side, there is still two hours from the road to get to the border wall,” Rodriguez told me the day before Title 42 ended.

The more difficult the U.S. makes it to cross the border, the more demand there is among people who want or need to cross it, fueling an ever-expanding market of illicit service providers. The customers don’t choose where they’re crossed. The smugglers do, and in the region of northern Sonora that abuts the Buenos Aires refuge, that means a long walk through the wilderness before you even make it to the border.

In addition to powering a vicious cycle that puts vulnerable people in dangerous situations, the smuggling market is in constant dialogue with shifting policies and narratives in the U.S. In the small town in northern Mexico where she works, everybody knows the border is now open, Rodriguez explained. She hears it from the women who staff her shelter.

“It just boggles my mind how they say, ‘Oh, Dorita, the border is going to be open, so people are going to come.’ And I say, ‘Where have you heard that?’” she said. “If that’s their mentality, if that’s what they hear, I am sure that’s what the smugglers are telling our people.”

EL PASO, TEXAS - MAY 12:  Immigrants wait to be transported and processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border on May 12, 2023 in El Paso, Texas. The U.S. Covid-era Title 42 immigration policy ended the night before, and migrants entering the system now are  anxious over how the change may affect their asylum claims. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

As Title 42 ends, immigrants wait to be transported and processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border on May 12, 2023 in El Paso, Tex.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Of course, detachments from reality know no border. Last spring’s arrival of a group of QAnon adherents who set up camp along the Buenos Aires border road proved it.

With Bibles in hand, the vigilantes intercepted groups of migrant children, who they claimed were being sex trafficked. They targeted local humanitarian volunteers as the perpetrators, posting their targets’ names, photos, and home addresses online. Eventually, after they ran out of money and a New York Times story exposed their harassment, they left.

Soon after, humanitarian aid volunteers in the area began noticing unusual “no trespassing” signs along the border wall. Though attached to federal property on federal land, the signs cited a state trespassing statute. Nevertheless, it was Border Patrol agents who began warning the volunteers that they could no longer stop on the road to provide aid.

In the wake of the QAnon affair, the Border Patrol resolved to never again allow camping near the border road, John Mennell, a Customs and Border Protection supervisory public affairs specialist in Tucson, told me.

There is no federal law that directly authorizes Border Patrol agents — employees of an immigration enforcement agency with some drug interdiction authorities — to arrest U.S. citizens for trespassing on federal public lands. In Arizona, however, there is a state trespassing law that allows for the arrest of U.S. citizens who disobey law enforcement officers under certain conditions. There’s also a federal statute, the Assimilative Crimes Act, that allows federal authorities to enforce state laws on federal land when no federal version of that law exists; the resulting charge, though drawn from a state statute, is filed at the federal level.

Putting two and two together, the Border Patrol took the position that U.S. citizens could drive along the border wall, but if they stopped, they would be violating the state’s trespassing laws and subject to federal prosecution. “The farmers and ranchers can use the border road to get up and around on their property or things like that,” Mennell said. Beyond that, the road would be considered off-limits. “What they don’t want is what we had earlier,” Mennell said, “where we had people camping on the road.”

“When you’re 75, eh — it’s just like, don’t mess with an old woman. I’m not afraid.”

Jane Storey, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher, is among the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans’ most active members. She is also one of two Samaritans whose personal information the vigilantes posted online. “They used to harass me all the time,” Storey told me last week. She didn’t let it get it to her. “I don’t know,” she said, “when you’re 75, eh — it’s just like, don’t mess with an old woman. I’m not afraid.”

After moving to the border in 2018, Storey found a calling in aid work. She ditched her Prius for a used Subaru that could better handle the rough terrain of the region. She went to the wall as often as she could. “I started keeping track because I was finding people all the time,” Storey said. She tallied 193 people, mostly children, who she provided aid to up until March 17, the day the Border Patrol finally placed her under arrest.

According to her account, Storey had pulled over for a group of children who were approaching a gap in the wall, one of whom was holding a baby. A Border Patrol agent had been trailing her and got out when she did. She asked the agent if she could give the children water. No, he told her, she had been repeatedly warned not to stop by the wall. Storey asked if she was going to be arrested. The agent said yes. The volunteer handed her car keys and phone to two of her companions.

With flex-cuffs fastened tight around her wrists, the retired teacher was driven to Border Patrol headquarters in Tucson and placed in a cold, concrete cell. Having written her attorney’s phone number inside her shoe, she was able to place a call for help.

In a statement, Diana L. Varela, executive assistant to U.S. Attorney Gary M. Restaino, acknowledged Storey’s arrest and explained her office’s decision not to prosecute the case. “Charging the subject in those circumstances would have been a hasty solution,” she wrote. That did not, however, mean that federal prosecutors would never bring such a case. “The United States has clear jurisdiction to prosecute crimes, including state law trespass crimes, on the Roosevelt Reservation near the border,” Varela said, referring to the strip of land that runs parallel to the border wall. “Whether or not prosecution is justified depends on the nature of the intrusion into Border Patrol activities and the nature of the trespass activity.

“We will continue to evaluate potential charges for trespass on a case-by-case basis,” Varela added. “Because we cannot resolve border issues through prosecution alone, we are also looking for an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about Samaritan activities — and the adverse impact some of those activities can have on Border Patrol’s efforts to safely secure the border — with the leadership of the organization.”

Storey was released from her cell. A forest service officer drove her to a gas station on the southeast edge of Tucson. The officer parked behind the building and told her to get out. Storey had been unable to reach her family while she was locked up. She had no phone, the sun was going down, and she was more than 30 miles from home.

If Storey’s arrest hadn’t rattled humanitarian providers enough, the return of the vigilantes did. In the weeks leading to the lifting of Title 42, the volunteers repeatedly found their water tanks shot through with holes or drained at the spigot. “Almost every week, we have a tank that’s been shot,” Rodriguez said.

One of the prime culprits in the destruction is a man named Paul Flores, who made local news after verbally berating a group of birders as pedophiles. He has posted videos online claiming that the humanitarian aid groups were in cahoots with the Biden administration and “the cartel” in a plot to destroy the country.

Ahead of and after the end of Title 42 in Arizona, claims that the state is under invasion have only intensified. Pinal County Sheriff and Senate hopeful Mark Lamb has made the claim repeatedly in videos to his supporters. Rep. Paul Gosar, the ultra-right-wing conspiracy theorist representing Arizona’s 9th congressional district, has taken it a step further, telling his constituents that “America is under a planned and sustained invasion — we must act accordingly.” On the other side of the state, the Cochise County Republican Committee has taken it further still, with chair Brandon Martin calling on residents to “build an army” and “repel the invasion.”

On Thursday night, with plans to visit the wall the next day, Rodriguez found herself worrying. Her concerns were not misplaced. The following day, Flores was back in the desert posting videos of himself emptying a Humane Borders water tank. Rodriguez and her fellow volunteers, meanwhile, were followed by truckload of well-known armed right-wing extremists, including a member of an Arizona Proud Boys chapter.

At one point in the day, the men pulled over to film a video of themselves harassing the humanitarian aid providers. Among the most talkative of the crew was Ethan Schmidt-Crockett, a bigot provocateur who was recently convicted of harassment-related charges. In multiple photos and videos shared throughout the day, Schmidt-Crockett appeared with a rifle over his shoulder.

By evening, the men were documenting themselves corralling a group of migrant children on the border road, purportedly an attempt to gather their biographic information. Despite complaining of Border Patrol “harassment” earlier in the day, the vigilantes managed to avoid arrest.

That the people who need refuge most are often the ones least likely to find it is an age-old border problem. That dynamic has now worsened, Randy Mayer, the pastor of the Good Shepherd church in Green Valley, told me the morning before Title 42 was lifted.

Mayer has spent more than two decades providing humanitarian aid on both sides of the border. He sees the administration’s CBP One app as a failing attempt to implement technocratic solutions for flesh-and-blood problems. The app is meant to allow migrants to schedule an appointment at a port of entry, now a prerequisite to requesting asylum.

“A family might get two people registered and then it’s shut down because all the appointments have been taken. So it’s separating families.”

“It’s just a crapshoot if you’re going to be able to get an appointment, and it’s really hard to get your whole family in,” Mayer said. Entering information for each person takes about an hour, he explained. “A family might get two people registered and then it’s shut down because all the appointments have been taken,” Mayer said. “So it’s separating families.”

It’s also creating a two-tiered system for refuge. A family with a laptop in Mexico City stands a far better chance of securing a place in line than does one relying on a beat-up phone that’s crossed three countries connected to dodgy Wi-Fi at an internet café near a border shelter, Mayer said. Most importantly, the app does not undo the conditions that cause people to flee their homes in the first place.

“I’ve talked to Guatemalan Uber drivers who’ve been robbed, their vehicles stolen by the gangs, they literally are fleeing intense danger. The gangs are after them. They’ve killed family members,” Mayer said. “They’re running for their life.”

The pastor, drawing from decades of personal experience, believes the present moment has a clear and predictable end state — one with dire consequences for potentially millions of people down the line. “They’re gonna end up coming to the desert,” he said. “You may not see that right away, but that’s where this is headed.”

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