SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO, Sonora — It happened in broad daylight, in the middle of a busy neighborhood on the Mexican side. Just past noon, U.S. Border Patrol agents stationed at the Yuma sector responded to a group of migrants that climbed over the 16-foot, landing-mat primary fence that separates this Mexican community from San Luis, Arizona.
In all, 61 of them made it into the United States, including 20 women and children. All but two are Guatemalan. A group of this size is not uncommon along this part of the border, according to Border Patrol officials.
"It’s not unusual for us to see numbers this large," Agent Jose Garibay said. He’s a spokesman for Border Patrol in the Yuma area.
"But, what we’re starting to see now is, a majority of these groups are ‘Other Than Mexican,’ who are coming over in these large groups in order to seek asylum in the United States," Garibay added.
"Other Than Mexican" is the term the Border Patrol uses for migrants originating from countries other than neighboring Mexico. It is applied most commonly to Central Americans.
In a recent visit, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called the rend unfolding in Yuma a "crisis," playing up the potential threat of dangerous gang members infiltrating asylum-seekers.
The number of migrant apprehensions in the area so far has already exceeded last year’s totals. And if current trends hold, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it could reach the highest level in a decade.
However, the numbers give only part of the picture. Migrant apprehensions along the Yuma Sector — which stretches 126 miles from the Yuma County line to California’s Imperial Sand Dunes — have been on a steady rise since they bottomed out in April 2017 because of the so-called "Trump effect."
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey tour the border and greet National Guard troops. Nick Oza/azcentral.com
But, according to government statistics, the main drivers in this surge in apprehensions are unaccompanied minors and families. They hail mostly from Central American countries and are fleeing violence and poverty.
Because of the shift, the Yuma area is now the second busiest smuggling route along the entire U.S.-Mexico border for the minors and families. And migrant advocates, as well as U.S. government officials, are puzzled as to why.
More minors and families in Yuma
Since the historic surge in 2014 that overwhelmed U.S. border officials, Texas’s Rio Grande Valley has remained the gateway for most Central American migrants trying to reach the United States.
Still, border agents in Yuma are encountering more Central Americans each month.
During the first seven months of the current fiscal year, the most recent statistics available, Border Patrol agents apprehended 13,933 migrants along the Yuma Sector. By comparison, in 2017 there were 12,847.
More than three quarters of the apprehensions (78 percent) this year are unaccompanied minors and family units, the term the Border Patrol uses to refer to adults traveling with one or more family members.
Statistics show that in these seven months the number of families apprehended in Yuma has far surpassed last year’s total. And the number of unaccompanied minors is higher this year as well.
When Nielsen toured the U.S.-Mexico border near Yuma in mid-April she painted contrasting pictures of the situation on the ground.
On one hand, she touted stronger border barriers that the National Guard installed a decade ago under Operation Jumpstart. They built 63 miles of steel, bollard-style fencing, which Nielsen referred to as a "wall," and 44 miles of vehicle barriers.
"The interdiction rate dropped 95 percent in Yuma due to a wall," she said, citing statistics from the Yuma Sector that show the number of migrant apprehensions dropping from more than 138,000 in 2005 — before the first National Guard deployment — to nearly 13,000 last year.
At the same time, Nielsen also claimed that the rise in the number in apprehensions this year is reaching "crisis" levels and that the National Guard was needed to address it, even though interdiction rates are still well below what they were in 2005.
With five months left in the current fiscal year, it’s certain the final tally in apprehensions will far exceed last year, and reach the highest levels since 2007, when National Guard troops were in the process of building the barriers in Yuma.
"That is a crisis," Nielsen said. "The numbers are too high."
Adam Isacson, a border security expert with the Washington Office for Latin America, said Nielsen was right about the significant rise in apprehensions in Yuma, but said sending National Guard troops to the border is the wrong approach.
"There is a crisis," he said. "But we would call it a humanitarian crisis, when you’ve got that many people coming with dependents who are fleeing the gangs, and fleeing these high homicide rates and the extortion."
Isacson said border barriers would do little to deter Central American minors and families who purposefully seek out agents and turn themselves in voluntarily.
He questioned the impact the deployment of 64 National Guard service members would have in the area, especially if their main responsibilities are to provide surveillance and operational support for Border Patrol agents.
"If the proposal is to have those soldiers processing people’s asylum claims, and doing the paperwork … we can debate on whether that’s an appropriate thing for soldiers to do," Isacson said. "But at least it’s something that they’re really needed for, immediate humanitarian response. But that’s not the proposal at all."
Why are they coming to Yuma?
It took Arnoldo Betanco,25, nearly four months to reach to the Sonoran border in San Luis Rio Colorado. He’s originally from the town of Choluteca in southern Honduras, but he said he couldn’t stay there any longer.
"In Honduras, our living situation is critical," he told The Arizona Republic. "The gangs will force you to work for them, and you can’t stay. They rob you of what little you have, and on top of that there’s a fee you have to be paying. It’s like a war tax."
Betanco is part of the recent wave in Central American arrivals to this part of the U.S.-Mexico border. He is not a minor, or traveling with any underage children, though he does have a two-year-old back home.
Migrant shelter Casa Migrante Divina Providencia in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, where migrants wait to cross the U.S. border while fleeing from gang violence in Central America.
The reasons why migrants such as Betanco have been arriving here in greater numbers are somewhat unclear, but there are several theories.
Martin Salgado is the director of the Casa del Migrante la Divina Providencia, a shelter for deported and northbound migrants in San Luis Rio Colorado. He said he’s heard of many Central Americans traveling through the area, although not all of them stop at the shelter and few of them stick around for very long.
"(Last night) they reported to me a man from Honduras in search of the American dream," he said. "He was with his four-year-old son. He came and asked for help. He slept here. We fed him dinner and breakfast. Then he went on his way."
One possible explanation why they’re coming to this part of the border, Salgado said, is a relatively stable security situation in and around the San Luis Rio Colorado area, which is linked to the construction of the stronger border barriers a decade ago.
"Back then, there was this situation where it was relatively easy to cross through here, and controls were not as strict," he said. "Now that’s changed, and in a certain way, that calmed things down here in this city."
Plus, he added, technology has made it easier for migrants to share information about the situation along the border. "They can pass along word that things around here are more calm," Salgado said.
The relative tranquility of the San Luis border contrasts to the situation many Central American migrants face in Tamaulipas, the Mexican state across from the Rio Grande Valley. Rival cartels are waging bloody turf battles, and often migrants get caught up in extortion, kidnappings, forced labor and even executions. Nonetheless, that area still is the most common, and shortest, route to reach the United States.
Salgado said he believes California, with its robust economy and immigrant friendly attitudes, is a strong draw for migrants to come through San Luis, and other border communities such as Mexicali and Tijuana.
Isacson of WOLA said there could also be some misconceptions at play, too, that stem from the well-documented arrival of Haitian migrants to this part of the border.
Deportee Omar Sanchez tries to find odd jobs to survive and comes to eat at the migrant shelter Casa Migrante Divina Providencia in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico.
"One word among smugglers over the years has been that the immigration or asylum ports in California have better rates of acceptance," Isacson said. "There’s probably some truth to that, and in general the 9th circuit (9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) is seen as more lenient, things like that. But I don’t think it’s that huge of a difference. I think a lot of it is smugglers overselling it."
Betanco said he first went to Mexicali on the advice of other migrants he met along the way. He’s been in the area for a few weeks now, earning some cash at times working as a security guard. He doesn’t have a smuggler helping him, so he’s unsure what he’ll do next.
"I haven’t been able to cross because I don’t know how I’m gonna do it," he said. "I don’t know how to get across, or whether to cross and turn myself in to Immigration."
Garibay, a Border Patrol agent in Yuma said they don’t know why Central American migrants, and in particular minors and families, are coming to this part of the border.
"We just don’t have that type of information,” he said.
Most of the 61 migrants apprehended in San Luis ended up claiming credible fear of being returned to Guatemala due to gang violence and threats, Garibay said. They’ve been processed, and their cases will now be determined by an immigration judge.
But, three of them were previously deported, and will be prosecuted, Garibay added. A fourth, a Salvadoran man, falsely claimed to be a minor, but he admitted to being an adult MS-13 gang member during agents’ questioning. He will be deported.
Historically, the numbers of migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border begins to rise during the summer. If that rise gives way to more minors and families, Border Patrol officials in Yuma say they’ll be ready.
"Whether or not it’s hot outside, it’s cold outside, there’s always a change in the locations of the crossings, or the number of crossings," Garibay said. "But we make every effort to prepare for any situation."