A Growing Border Crisis

A report from Arizona

By John Wahala on May 24, 2019

Amidst recent talk of growing caravans and states of emergency, the Center for Immigration Studies completed its eighth border tour earlier this spring, traveling in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, from Nogales, Ariz., to the New Mexico state line.

On the ever changing border, the latest national story is the exponential increase in the number of people making credible fear claims in hopes of getting asylum, something that was not happening a few years ago. While the Tucson Sector has yet to experience the crush of asylum seekers that are arriving in the Rio Grande Valley, the numbers are increasing, as are the number of overall apprehensions. To the west in Yuma, the mayor has declared a state of emergency to handle the growing influx. To the east, undeveloped parts of New Mexico are seeing large numbers of illegal crossers and drug smugglers for perhaps the first time. The pressure being exerted on the surrounding areas of the border has prompted authorities who lack detention space to bus apprehended migrants to Tucson for release rather than let them go in areas that are already overwhelmed.

Even the New York Times has acknowledged this growing crisis. A broadening interpretation of the asylum law coupled with the policy of releasing migrants with children has set off a new chain of migration extending deep into Central America and beyond. At a Catholic shelter in Agua Prieta, in the Mexican state of Sonora opposite the Arizona town of Douglas, a woman traveling with her sister and young son told us they came from the state of Guerrero, more than 1,000 miles to the south, where an uncle relayed news of his asylum in the United States. His successful claim set off a local movement north. When asked if she would be willing to settle in a safer part of Mexico the woman replied with an emphatic no, her goal was to move to the United States. Such intent, of course, violates the point of asylum law, which is to secure immediate protection for individuals who are fleeing specific types of persecution and have no other options. There were many other nationalities represented at the shelter, including a young couple from Russia who were vacationing in Cancun before deciding to head all the way to Agua Prieta to apply for U.S. asylum because they heard the lines were much shorter than at other ports of entry along the border.

Most of the families that are being released into the United States are simply not eligible for asylum. What is worse is that some of the "family units" are not families at all. A top Border Patrol agent told us they apprehend men traveling with children who have either been kidnapped or bribed along the way. The men know that showing up with a child improves their chances of avoiding detention. Authorities are left with the sad and unenviable task of figuring out what to do with these children.    

No amount of border enforcement can stem this growing influx. Most migrants making asylum claims enter through the ports of entry or search for agents to process their requests. A recent court ruling upheld the Trump administration’s policy of sending some of these migrants back to Mexico to wait for their asylum hearing. But absent a change in how these claims are adjudicated there is no stopping more people of taking advantage of current policy. And there is no shortage of people who want to come to America. A recent Gallup poll found that 158 million adults would immigrate to the United States if they could, meaning that a total of somewhere between 386 to 703 million people would likely come. Another recent survey found that nearly 40 percent of Guatemalans intend to leave their country and most plan on coming to the United States. Federal authorities apprehended more than 200,000 illegal aliens in March and April and illegal border crossings have more than doubled in the past year, on a pace to exceed one million annually. 

A series of very poor political decisions created the current crisis and there appears to be no easy political solution. The intractable and growing divide between the parties now extends to issues as fundamental as border security. In a sad irony, the only reason the Tucson Sector has yet to experience the volume of asylum seekers that are arriving at other areas of the border is because the local drug cartel on the Mexican side has started turning them away. Sources on both sides of the border told us that the cartel is redirecting the migrants who are heading north to Nogales and Agua Prieta because they do not want the attention on the area. Why this is the case in Sonora and not in other parts of Mexico is a question that no one seemed able to answer. But what everyone did acknowledge is that no institution in Mexico can effectively challenge the cartels. Drug money drives the local economy, creating wealth and corruption that has spilled over into neighboring Douglas, Arizona, where U.S. customs agents and others have been reportedly bribed over the years. 

Those not involved in the illicit trade are largely insulated from the corruption and violence, which typically breaks out in internecine territorial disputes between rival cartels. Most residents can live relatively peaceful lives, even in high crime areas of northern Mexico. For example, our guide called Agua Prieta an "illegal universe" that remains "El Chapo Land" years after the infamous kingpin operated in the region. In spite of this, our guide was an American who fell in love with Mexican culture and decided to raise his family there. He said that most locals feel safe and many actually worry more about traveling in America because of the sensationalist reporting on gun violence in the United States. We heard a similar message from an American Presbyterian pastor, who has devoted himself to ministering to a local congregation and developing a coffee co-op that enables Mexican farmers to remain on their lands instead of migrating north. 

This is the paradox that runs across the southwest border. On the one hand, many residents see the region as one binational community. We heard this from a businessman who travels back and forth from Mexico nearly every day and from the owner of a produce company whose livelihood is dependent on the daily transport of fruits and vegetables coming north. Some of his workers live in Mexico and others commute there for cheaper goods and services as important as health and child care. A Nogales, Ariz., public official, who emphasized the interdependency of the region in our briefing, told us that lots of children living in Mexico go to school in the United States and that most of these kids are anchor babies. The official acknowledged that cross-border relations have improved in recent years after a truce was reached between two rival drug cartels, who agreed to split the territory of Nogales, Sonora, by the train tracks that run through the city. He did point out, however, that the local maquiladoras, which are said to employ 60,000 people, are still experiencing a worker shortage because Mexicans living farther south are reluctant to move to the border region because of the persistent reports of violence, which may be overblown. Many who live and work in the region see no crisis.  


Montezuma Pass

On the other hand, there is the chaos on a 1,954 mile international border that is constantly being breached by human and drug smugglers. Stopping these incursions is a formidable challenge in the Tucson Sector, where the rugged terrain is flanked by the Sonoran Desert and several impressive mountain ranges. Temperatures are often extreme. These obstacles do not deter the cartels, who use the hills and valleys to elude detection. But not all of the loads make it through. Approximately 40 percent of drug seizures nationwide are conducted in this sector and, according to a top Border Patrol official, there was enough fentanyl seized in the past year to kill the entire population of the United States, twice. Since marijuana became legal in parts of the United States, authorities have increasingly been dealing with hard narcotics. The smugglers are aided by the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation, which, because of its partial sovereignty and reputation for corruption, is identified as the 62-mile weak spot on the southwest border. While there has always been a tension between governing authorities, the Border Patrol told us of a recent willingness to work together. The federal government is in the process of installing two towers on the reservation to assist in stopping the people and drugs heading north.

The Border Patrol station in Nogales is the most technologically advanced in the country, equipped with lots of cameras to monitor the hills and valleys. The surveillance equipment was installed as a response to the surge of illegal crossers that the sector experienced several years ago. The upgrades likely played a role in shifting the flow east, to places like the Rio Grande Valley. But now apprehensions are up again, as February saw the highest apprehension rate ever for the Tucson Sector. We were told that smugglers pay close attention to the enforcement techniques and adjust accordingly. For example, most of the crossings used to occur at night until the National Geographic "Border Wars" television show revealed how effective night vision was in spotting incursions. Smugglers realized that crossing during the day neutralized this technology, giving them a better chance to evade the apprehension. Now most of the crossings occur during the day.

Nogales, Sonora, has a population of about 200,000 people (compared to just 20,000 in Nogales, Ariz.) and spans 31 linear miles along the border, which are patrolled by 594 Border Patrol agents. Fencing, we were told, is essential in urban areas like Nogales, where a sizable portion of downtown already has a wall. The portion of that wall that separates the American side from the Mexican neighborhood of Buenos Aires Oeste, where El Chapo himself was said to walk the streets, is covered in Concertina wire. We were told that the wire was added to stop smugglers from dropping their customers over the wall and down onto a concrete slope, breaking many legs. 


Border wall in downtown Nogales

The agents stationed in Nogales deal with a lot of problems. Years ago, they closed down sewage tunnels that ran under the border, which had been used, at various times, for both smuggling and a refuge for homeless children. The children would steal from stores on the American side to survive and return to the tunnels to escape prosecution. It was said that dead bodies washed up from time to time. Today, agents encounter a high volume of illegal crossers and also "rip crews," which are armed groups of bandits who rob the migrants as they make their way north. Most of the bandits are American citizens but some are foreign nationals who come across the border to commit various crimes before returning to Mexico. All of this activity poses a danger to the agents and other law enforcement officials, whom we were told are more likely to get assaulted while making an apprehension the closer they are to Mexico because migrants know they can escape prosecution if they can just make it back across the border. Smugglers and other criminals often go right through the southbound port of entry with drugs and other contraband, easily bribing Mexican officials. There are no southbound checks by the United States. 
The relentlessness of this illegal influx heading north can be defeating for those who have dedicated years of their life to securing the border. Even young agents, who signed up for the excitement of being out in the field, get discouraged. Their frustration stems mostly from the persistent lack of political will to enforce the law. Morale was excellent when President Trump took office but the agents have not seen enough change. They know the steps that are needed to stop the influx, which are more extensive than simply erecting a wall, but for complex social and political reasons these steps have not been implemented. This has led to cynicism and contributed to attrition within the ranks. We were told that five hundred new agents are being hired each year but eight hundred are leaving.  

So the illegal influx continues in many ways as it has for years. A retired agent told us he once caught three generations of smugglers carrying marijuana who said they had been doing it for 20 years and that it was the first time they had been caught. We also heard an absurd story of an agent apprehending the same pregnant women five times over the course of a few months. The last time she was caught she was transported to an Arizona hospital where she delivered her baby, who became a U.S. citizen by birth.


Border fence east of Nogales

East of Nogales, we visited ranchers who deal with the fallout from the illegal influx every day. They explained that the situation is constantly changing and that things there are simply not normal. A theme of the discussion, which we have heard repeated elsewhere, is that the border region is a country unto itself with its own laws and customs. Illegality often goes unprosecuted and certain societal norms cannot be taken for granted. They gave us a string of anecdotes in support of this claim: vandalism and burglaries are common and there have even been murders; raw sewage flows from Mexico into the United States at several points along the border, a local hospital closed because it could not cover the costs of treating illegal crossers; a group of teenagers just got paralyzed by a batch of tainted cocaine; a group of men from India seeking asylum jumped on the top of one of their vehicles as they were driving down the road. One of the most poignant moments of our visit was when one of the ranchers asked rhetorically, "How do you raise a daughter in such lawlessness?"

The ranchers cited a study finding it costs 33 percent more to raise cattle on the border and another claiming it costs 75 percent more per animal. We did not get the details of this research but it is safe to say there is an added financial cost to ranching on the border. The federal government has allegedly spent $54 million on a single rancher’s property to stop the illegal influx but people keep crossing. That rancher told us that the cartels cut right through the steel border wall. In the last three years, 54 trucks have driven right through his land, ripping up pastures and destroying fences. 


Ranchland near Naco

Some of the ranchers are ambivalent toward the Border Patrol because of the damage agents have done to their property. We were told they have started fires, left water running, and run over cows. One ranch hosts a class to teach new agents how to treat ranch lands. Another ranch made it more difficult for the Border Patrol to access their lands and installed their own security, which reportedly has been effective in deterring the crossers. Another point of contention is that the Bureau of Land Management allegedly limits Border Patrol access to waterways, creating a loophole for illegal crossers.  

A group of sheriffs from Ohio were visiting one of the ranches while we were there. Their counties are experiencing rapid growth in illegal immigration and transnational gangs so they had traveled to southern Arizona to find out how these folks were getting into the United States. Talking with them was another reminder that, whether people can see it or not, failing to secure the border is not just a problem for overwhelmed federal agencies or migrant shelters or hospitals or schools or ranchers along the border. It is a moral, social, and political problem for the entire nation, one that threatens the very idea of nationhood.