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The families sat in folding chairs under a white canopy in a tiny park north of the central plaza. A small group of volunteers dressed head to toe in medical scrubs stood at a table nearby, gray hair protruding from behind their plastic face shields. Many of the children wore winter coats and knit caps. Their parents looked tired but present, their overstuffed backpacks resting in the grass beside them.
Guadalupe Alvarez, a fluent Spanish speaker, provided the orientation. The first order of business was letting the families know where they were: Ajo, Arizona, a tiny unincorporated community in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.
“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 we can go to the restroom if they’d like,” Alvarez told me. From there, Ajo’s ad-hoc processing system began.
The drop-offs of asylum-seekers in Southern Arizona began roughly a month after President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Justified by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as a response to capacity and resource issues, the off-loading in rural communities is one example of the Biden administration doubling down and in some ways intensifying a controversial Trump-era practice on the border. Under President Donald Trump, large groups of asylum-seekers were for a time released in the western city of Yuma, creating major strains on the community. Under Biden, similar releases are now happening in communities a fraction of the size of Yuma and with far fewer resources, creating a fraught and untenable situation for humanitarian aid providers in some of the border’s deadliest areas.
The Intercept observed two rounds of drop-offs in Ajo recently and spoke to community members involved in the response effort. The process works like this: Prior to the drop-offs, CBP, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, provides Casa Alitas and the International Rescue Committee, the organizations that oversee the primary migrant shelters in Tucson and Phoenix, respectively, and volunteers on the ground with a rough count of how many asylum-seekers to expect. There are typically two drops in Ajo, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon.
Volunteers, some of them elderly retirees, assemble to conduct rapid Covid-19 tests on the spot. Testing is followed by food and an opportunity to sit in an air-conditioned auditorium, eat volunteer-prepared food, and connect to Wi-Fi. From Ajo, the families and individuals are loaded onto rented vans and driven hours away to Tucson or Phoenix, families generally going to the former and single adults going to the latter. If someone tests positive for Covid-19 during the process, which as of April 1 had happened three times, they are separated from the larger group, and a volunteer drives them to the shelter on their own.
Surrounded by a vast expanse of desert, Ajo is the lone population center in one of the deadliest corridors for migrants in all of Southern Arizona. With record-setting heat last year, the state saw more migrant remains recovered in the desert than any year in the past decade. Many of those remains were found in the desert outside Ajo.
John Orlowski, a longtime volunteer with the Ajo Samaritans, the town’s most active humanitarian organization, said the size of the groups has been steadily increasing, with the largest group to arrive so far numbering 40 people. Initially, volunteers themselves were footing the bill to charter transportation to Tucson. Recently, Pima County’s Board of Supervisors secured a contract to cover those costs, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse.
As we watched a drop-off unfolding one morning, Orlowski noted that volunteers have encountered multiple cases of families who were separated during processing at the border, with some members turned away.
The rural drop-offs in Southern Arizona are one facet of the complicated and often confusing enforcement dynamics playing out across the border right now. The Biden administration is currently continuing Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule pushed through by Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller that has allowed Border Patrol agents to carry out more than half a million “expulsions” across the Southwest in the past year. The expulsions do not involve a hearing, and they are often completed in a just a couple hours.
As Biden made clear in his first press conference as president, his administration would prefer to use the rule to expel all families who cross the border, but the Mexican government’s refusal to accept certain populations has presented challenges to that effort.
Asylum-seekers are not exempt under Title 42, and up until November, neither were unaccompanied children: The Trump administration expelled at least 13,000 unaccompanied kids using the rule. There’s currently little observable consistency in who, beyond unaccompanied children, is currently being exempted from expulsions. The demographics of rural drop-offs in Arizona’s section of the border, however, indicate that individuals from South America and the Caribbean — particularly Venezuelans, Cubans, and Brazilians — are faring better in being permitted entry than Central Americans and Mexicans.
“It’s always excused with paperwork,” Orlowski said of the family separations created by Title 42. “Today, none of these people had paperwork. They forgot.”
The Border Patrol had failed to provide the families before us with paperwork that would establish that they were authorized to be in the country. If volunteers had not caught the oversight, Orlowski said, “the likelihood of us sending them to Tucson and then figuring out how to get the paperwork to them and not making a mistake would have been pretty low.”
The official who was dispatched to deliver the missing documents to the waiting asylum-seekers arrived wearing plainclothes, including a pendant version of “Thor’s Hammer,” a symbol of Norse mythology sometimes appropriated by white supremacists and other extremists, as well as a Grunt Style T-shirt that read “For the Great Taste of Freedom: 100% Bacon.” The man, who wore no mask, proceeded to mix up which children belonged to which parents, and when one of the women pointed this out to him, in Spanish, he told her he did not understand what she was saying, in English.
While volunteers administered rapid Covid-19 tests, I spoke to a Venezuelan father who had come to the border with his 8-year-old son. He said he was feeling “better” and “safer” now that they were in the U.S. The aim was to reunite with the boy’s mother, he explained, who was already living in the U.S. There was nothing left for them in Venezuela. “There’s no future,” the man said. Venezuelans currently constitute one of the largest populations of displaced people on the planet.
With their Covid-19 tests coming back negative, the man and his child were led into the auditorium. A volunteer lent him her phone so he could deliver the news.
The first murmurings that CBP was considering the change in policy started at the beginning of the year. Agency officials told Southern Arizona stakeholders that under the 1982 Antideficiency Act, which bars federal agencies from using resources for activities outside the scope of their congressional mandate, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector would no longer drive people apprehended in the desert beyond the nearest inhabited place; historically, the agency has maintained custody through transportation to cities such as Tucson or Phoenix.
A CBP official speaking to The Intercept on background in March said a lack of legally available resources was indeed part of the shift in policy, as was a federal court injunction ordering the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector to provide individuals in custody for more than 48 hours with items such as clean blankets, soap, and access to medical care.
Southern Arizona, and Ajo in particular, has a long history of humanitarian aid, reaching back to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. As it has for decades, that community has stepped up in response to the ever shifting, always punishing realities of U.S. border enforcement, but efforts to respond to the daily drop-offs are clearly taking a toll.
For those on the ground, CBP’s justifications for the shift in practice are difficult to square. The Border Patrol station outside Ajo is a state-of-the-art facility utilized by hundreds of personnel. CBP has an air fleet roughly as large as the Brazilian air force. Ajo, by comparison, is a community of about 3,700 people with no local government and no hospital. Nestled in one of the most unforgiving ecosystems in the American Southwest, it is officially considered a “federally designated colonia” due to the absence of resources, money, and infrastructure.
“The frustrating thing is this was never an issue back in 2019 — DHS was able to fund and get people to the larger cities of Tucson and Phoenix,” Diego Piña Lopez, the program manager of Casa Alitas, told me after his first visit to observe the operations in Ajo. The Casa Alitas shelter provided services to some 18,000 people that year. In recent weeks, CBP has told local officials to expect an even bigger influx this year, though so far in Arizona that has yet to happen. Prior to the shift in policy, the pandemic had already put an enormous strain on aid providers, Piña said: “If DHS does testing and transportation, that would take a load off of the shelters.”
The city of Yuma, population 100,000, has experienced large-scale CBP drop-offs before. In 2019, Republican Mayor Douglas Nicholls declared a state of emergency in response to the practice. At the time, Nicholls relied heavily on local nonprofits to provide the humanitarian response on the ground. Two years later, those same organizations are struggling to keep the lights on.
“Our nonprofits have been decimated, in a lot of ways, by Covid,” Nicholls told me. “They don’t have the resources they used to have.”
Yuma has received “well over 2,000” asylum-seekers since February, Nicholls said, with drops of roughly 50 people at a time — families and single adults — continuing on a daily basis. “I have reached out to the White House, and they reached out to DHS, and we had a meeting where they sent FEMA and DHS health officials to Yuma,” Nicholls added.
Programs to reimburse the city for transportation are being set up, he said, but that’s money down the line, not money right now, when it’s most needed. Despite his requests, Nicholls has received no indication from the White House if or when the desert drop-offs will stop. Requiring strained communities to shoulder thousands of dollars in costs every day is “not sustainable,” he said. What’s needed is an orderly, lawful way for people to seek asylum, the mayor argued, and a recognition that people in migration are the targets of systemic violence and exploitation.
“That should shake us to our core,” Nicholls said. “And it shouldn’t matter how you’re registered to vote.”
The shift in CBP’s posture in Ajo is particularly ironic. In 2017, an agent at the local Border Patrol station — nicknamed “Rambo” — concluded that a local retiree named Mimi Phillips was using humanitarian aid as a cover for a rare version of nonprofit human smuggling. Thus began a sweeping crackdown on humanitarian aid providers in Ajo in which nine volunteers were charged with federal crimes for leaving food and water for migrants in the desert. In the most serious case, Scott Warren, an Ajo-based geographer who devoted his time to searching for missing and deceased migrants, faced 20 years in prison for providing two Central Americans with food, water, and a place to sleep. The government’s case collapsed after nearly two years, and Warren was acquitted of all charges.
Today, the same agency that brought those charges is turning to that same network to provide aid to asylum-seekers. Phillips is making food for them.
So far, the cost for the materials has been covered by private donors, Phillips explained as she and group of volunteers put together a week’s worth of meals one afternoon. Some of those donors include individuals who dipped into their Covid-19 relief money.
“We’re hoping, someday, to get government support — I mean, what do communities do?” Phillips asked. “We don’t want hundreds of people just roaming the streets of Ajo wondering what the hell they’re doing here and how we’re going to get out of here.”
The temperatures in the desert are already rising, and as Philipps noted, Ajo’s aging volunteer base can only stand in the heat for so long. Burnout is setting in.
“People are tired,” she said. “It’s consumed our lives.”