Republicans sued to stop most migration from Mexico and won. But the desperate still cross: NPR
Since he was a boy in the border town of Nogales, Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway says people have crossed America in search of a better life. Only recently, he says, has it become red meat for national politicians.
“Caravans that stop in Mexico, they’re heading this way and it’s going to be a massive invasion,” he laughs. “It never materialized as they portray it.”
On a recent afternoon, it was calm in the high desert along the US-Mexico border several miles east of town. It’s usually like that, says Hathaway.
“There, that’s Mexico right there,” he said as he got out of his SUV along a dirt road.
Hathaway is a former DEA agent in Nogales and South America. But he dresses more like the old west: a cowboy hat, suspenders, a keychain hanging from his belt. About a hundred feet to his left, he points to a section of a newer border fence, with its coils of barbed wire hanging down on the American side. Construction stopped when Donald Trump left office.
A few construction platforms and fences lie across the road near the dry Santa Cruz River, where some of the first Spanish explorers entered what is now the United States in the 15th century . That was long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the sheriff likes to point out.
“It’s very peaceful where we’re standing here, right next to the border, where you can just cross over and be in Mexico,” he says.
Or crouch under a short vehicle fence and enter the United States directly. People continue to do so in places like this, even despite a federal judge’s recent ruling allowing the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42 to remain in place.
President Trump used this order to block most migration from Mexico. Under Title 42, most captured Mexicans and Central Americans are returned immediately. But there seem to be a lot of exceptions.
This Tucson shelter is still seeing record numbers
Asylum seekers continue to cross, and at least one shelter for them in Arizona is seeing record numbers. Seventy miles north of Nogales, the Casa Alitas reception center in Tucson is welcoming 375 people in one day, just days after the judge kept closures in place at official southern entry points.
Many bus unloads under the hot sun seem exhausted. They carry the few items they could take in plastic bags given to them in detention. A baby sleeps on a woman’s shoulder as she prepares to take a Covid test. Shelter manager Teresa Cavendish says it’s probably the first time migrants have felt safe in ages.
“Something made them leave their homes, anything that was traumatic and dangerous for them,” she says. “And then they spent time at the US-Mexico border, a very dangerous space.”
Shelter staff say what stands out from the fierce partisan battles over immigration in Congress is the fact that so many people are fleeing dangerous situations right now, as violence and global instability have increased, especially in Latin America during the pandemic.
Cavendish and other aid workers in Tucson are preparing for the likelihood of handling more than a thousand people a day very soon.
“We keep moving forward,” she says. “We believe this break in Title 42 is just that, a break.”
Most of the people who arrive here come from countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, or even from more distant countries like the Middle East. Immigration authorities cannot easily send them back to their home country or Mexico, so they are allowed to enter the country for the time being as their asylum claims are processed.
It can take years.
Colombian family hopes to get to Atlanta
Colombian Wilmar Romero has been staying at Casa Alitas with his wife and two young children for two weeks. Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, Romero says he had to leave Bogota because an armed gang threatened his family.
They first flew to Mexico City, then traveled by bus for three days to Mexicali. Shortly after, they drove through a known breach in the border fence near Yuma, Arizona.
Romero says he is grateful to be in a safe place and that shelter staff are helping him book plane tickets to Atlanta, where he has a friend and hopes to find work.
His story is typical, according to aid workers here. Once he and his family crossed near Yuma, they simply waited to get to a certain location where the US Border Patrol tends to pick up migrants and detain them. He and his family were eventually brought to this shelter over three hours away. They hadn’t heard of Casa Alitas, and they didn’t even know for sure where they were in Arizona. They were just desperate to flee to safety, according to Romero.
Much of the federal funding supporting aid is about to run out
Much of the funding to meet the growing humanitarian needs in border towns like Tucson comes from the federal government. Much of it is expected to run out by the end of the month, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero warns.
“I fear Congress is allocating funds for a mess in terms of a broken immigration system that they refuse to fix,” Romero said.
Under the Trump administration, the Border Patrol has been criticized for dropping asylum seekers off at Tucson’s parks or its Greyhound bus station with no plan or support network available to them. The practice often referred to as “rural releases” continued under the Biden administration, straining nearby more rural towns that had no formal aid infrastructure.
“We will do everything we can to avoid going out on the streets, our whole community will,” Cavendish said. “But there will come a time when we will have so many sheltered people with us that the inevitable is unavoidable.”
There’s a lot of criticism of Title 42 along this part of the border, especially in more progressive-leaning cities like Tucson. Romero, the city’s first Latina and first female mayor, says it’s ironic that Republicans have sued to keep a public health order in place.
“For example, Attorney General Brnovich here in Arizona was fighting cities like Tucson when we instituted public health measures to protect our communities from Covid-19,” Romero said.
The Attorney General declined a request for an interview, but in a report called the judge’s decision to keep Title 42 in place a victory.
Border sheriff calls Title 42 ‘dishonest’
Back in Nogales, Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway says he’s mostly let down on federal leaders, after two decades of stalemate on immigration reform. He also fears that the continued use of taxpayer dollars to build more humanitarian aid infrastructure in cities like Tucson could serve as an incentive for more illegal crossings.
He recently write an editorial in Arizona’s largest newspaper calling for the lifting of Title 42, saying it is dishonest to use a public health order to restrict migration, adding that it only compounds the bottleneck of claims asylum at the border.
“If anyone at the cabinet level of the Biden administration heard this, that’s what I would say, bring the officials who make these decisions right to the border,” the sheriff said. “Have a line where they decide cases immediately.”
The Biden administration has just launched a small program start doing it, but it may not survive a legal challenge.