Border officials in Arizona warn asylum seekers of arrest for illegal entry

NOGALES — Border officials in Arizona, and the military commander for 1,500 active-duty troops deployed to the state, said they are fortifying the border and warned asylum seekers against trying to enter the United States illegally.

The warning comes as President Donald Trump issued a proclamation Friday morning that bars any migrant who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally from claiming asylum.

Several civil liberties groups immediately filed a lawsuit against Trump’s action.

Both developments were largely prompted by the hundreds of mostly Central American migrants traveling toward the United States in a caravan.

The caravan is in Mexico City, still hundreds of miles from the border. It is heading to Tijuana, following in the footsteps of a smaller caravan earlier this year. 

As that previous caravan approached the border in April, it splintered. And many of those migrants, also made up mostly of parents and children, ended up in Nogales and other ports of entry along the way to Tijuana.

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Customs and Border Protection leaders told reporters they are preparing for that possibility. But the main message they pushed Friday was for asylum-seekers to go through designated areas at ports of entry, warning them they could face arrest if they don’t do so.

“We are not trying to prevent people who are coming lawfully,” said Rodolfo Karisch, the chief patrol agent for Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. “But we will arrest those who enter our country illegally.”

Customs and Border Protection officials said those arrested would be prosecuted, but that any potential separation of parents from their children as a result of their arrest would be “on a case-by-case basis.”

The warning was directed not just at the families who for months have trekked to the Arizona desert and turned themselves in voluntarily to Border Patrol agents. It also applies to migrants seeking to rush past the ports of entry through passenger car lanes.

“This past week, we have had multiple groups trying to run through our vehicular lanes, so that’s already happening,” said Petra Horne, Customs and Border Protection’s acting director of field operations. “We’re wanting to get the message out in advance to inform these individuals not to do that.”

Customs and Border Protection later disclosed that the Port of Nogales encountered six different family units in a 24-hour period trying to illegally enter the United States through the vehicular lanes at the DeConcini and Mariposa crossings.

The officials urged asylum seekers to wait their turn and go through the designated areas at ports, specifically the pedestrian crossings.

More razor wire coming to border

As part of the preparations for the possible arrival of additional migrant families, soldiers deployed to the border will continue to string razor wire along all six of Arizona’s ports of entry, Col. Larry Dewey, the senior military commander for the 1,500 troops in the state, said.  

Army soldiers and engineers began installing concertina wire at the Nogales crossings on Tuesday. Similar work will begin at the other five crossings in the next few days, starting with Douglas. 

“Right now, we’re focused on the ports of entry as our first priority,” Dewey said. “Once those are hardened sufficiently and CBP is satisfied with that, if they want us to continue to branch out further into remote areas, possibly we will do that as well at their request.” 

Despite the immediate focus on the ports of entry, the busiest points along the Arizona border are between the ports.

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For months, large groups of migrants, some as big as 150, have crossed the border illegally at the remote desert area west of Lukeville and along the urbanized twin cities of San Luis and San Luis Rio Colorado in southwestern Arizona.

The groups seek out border agents and turn themselves in voluntarily to claim asylum.

New data released Friday by Customs and Border Protection showed that the number of families Border Patrol agents intercepted in Arizona in October was the highest monthly total since the government started tracking that data in 2013.

What’s more, the total number of apprehensions along the Southwestern U.S. border hit a recent high in October though the number was still well below the historic highs from more than a decade ago. 

The latest figures show agents apprehended 50,975 people in October, continuing an upward trend that began in April 2017.

The increase in border apprehensions has seen the sharpest increases since July, driven mostly by what the federal agency defines as “family unit” apprehensions, the term the government uses to refer to migrant families.

Unaccompanied minor apprehensions have remained largely unchanged since the overall upswing began 18 months ago. 

The sharp increase in recent months follows an extended lull in border apprehensions, going back to 2009, with one relatively small surge in spring 2014, when a wave of unaccompanied minors fled Central America. 

Karisch, the chief patrol agent for the Tucson Sector, said his agency is aware and has been tracking the changing demographics of migrants it apprehends, which has shifted in recent years from single men to more families and children.

He said the Border Patrol is preparing to invest additional resources to high-traffic areas such as the Lukeville area to respond to the continued surge in the arrival of families and minors, with the potential for more with the caravan.

“I mean we have people on the ground right now we’re going to forward deploy in preparation for the caravan,” he said.

The troops in Arizona are part of a 7,000-strong force deployment to the U.S.-Mexico border, although only about 5,600 have been deployed so far. Initially called Operation Faithful Patriot, the U.S. Department of Defense did away with the title.

Instead, Customs and Border Protection took up the name Operation Secure Line, with troops in supporting roles for the operation. They are not allowed to carry out law enforcement duties.

Concerns that ports may be rushed

As U.S. Army soldiers installed concertina wire, elected leaders and residents in Nogales criticized the border fortification and called the use of the military as unnecessary and a waste of resources.

Customs and Border Protection officials said they wanted to ensure the safety of everyone of the border.

“Given recent events in Mexico, there is a concern that there will be an attempt to rush the ports of entry and potentially put our officers at risk, damaging infrastructure and disrupting legitimate trade and travel,” Horne said. 

“I think everybody saw what happened in the Mexico-Guatemala border, where Mexico was, in fact, offering asylum and they still rushed through the border,” Karisch added. “So we have to prepare for that eventuality.”

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Since April, large numbers of migrant families amassed at the ports of entry, including Nogales and San Luis. At some points, asylum seekers in Arizona had to wait up to three weeks to talk to an immigration officer.

Along other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, wait times for migrants have been even longer, if they were allowed to approach the ports at all. Several groups have filed a lawsuit against the federal government arguing that they were working with their Mexican counterparts to turn away asylum-seekers at the ports. 

On Friday, the line at DeConcini crossing was shorter than usual, with just a couple of families waiting on the Mexican side of the border to present their claims. Inside the port, more than 50 people had already been processed and were waiting in the temporary holding facility for immigration officers to pick them up.

With Trump’s proclamation on Friday, and local CBP officials urging asylum-seekers to go to the ports of entry, there are concerns about bottlenecks at the border crossings.

Horne said customs officers at the ports have other responsibilities, including drug interdiction and processing lawful trade and travel. But she signaled there are additional resources to help process migrants.

“CBP-wide, we have over a thousand employees that are ready to deploy,” she said. “We also have an additional 250 special response team officers. … Some of them have already started arriving in our land ports of entry and will be ready to deploy if needed.”

Once processed at the ports of entry, most families who pass their credible fear interviews are taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Starting last month, ICE decided to release these families and enroll them into their Alternative to Detention program. 

The adults are outfitted with GPS ankle trackers and released into the custody of relatives living in the United States, with a notice to appear in court at a later date. 

Evan Wyloge of the Desert Sun contributed to this story.

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