Arrests of people crossing the border into most of Arizona are at the lowest they’ve been in more than 20 years, but apprehensions along the state’s western edge near Yuma are on the rise.
For the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector made about 63,000 arrests — nearly half of the apprehensions they made in 2013, just-released Customs and Border Protection data show. Yuma’s apprehensions rose to just over 7,000 arrests from about 6,000 the previous two years.
The picture of the southern border has changed drastically in recent years. Tucson is no longer the busiest sector in the country and Yuma’s apprehensions are far below the more than 100,000 arrests seen in the mid-2000s.
As the number of Mexicans coming north declined and the number of people from other countries, primarily Central America, went up, human traffic shifted east to Texas — particularly the Rio Grande Valley, which is the shortest route from countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
With nearly 150,000 apprehensions, the Rio Grande Valley was the busiest sector in the country last year. But the total number of arrests nationwide, 331,000, is the lowest since 1972.
Numbers up in Yuma
The number of Central Americans crossing through Yuma is far smaller than those making the journey through Texas, but this group is responsible for the sector’s rise in apprehensions.
In three years, the share of people from countries other than Mexico arrested in Yuma went from about 13 percent to nearly half. So far this fiscal year, it’s 75 percent, said Paul Beeson, commander of the Joint Task Force West-Arizona Corridor headquarters and new chief of the Tucson sector.
“If you take out people from countries other than Mexico, Yuma’s numbers would actually be down,” Beeson said.
Yuma has seen a growing number of single parents crossing with their children over the last couple of years, even surpassing Tucson’s numbers.
“The people crossing there are not trying to evade arrest,” Beeson said. “They are crossing, flagging down a Border Patrol agent.”
The border is an ever-changing environment, said Faye Hipsman, associate policy analyst with the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. When the U.S. government stepped up enforcement in the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico upped its efforts to disrupt the corridor that leads to South Texas, smugglers changed and adapted, she said.
Yuma was not the only sector to see an increase in apprehensions in fiscal 2015: Big Bend and El Paso, both in Texas, also saw slight jumps.
“We don’t make decisions where people are going to try to cross; those decisions are made well south of us when people engage with smugglers,” Beeson said.
The higher numbers do not reflect how easy or difficult it is to cross into the Yuma Sector, he said, and it’s nothing agents in the sector cannot manage.
At its peak in 2005, Yuma made nearly 140,000 arrests. During that time, the sector that covers 126 miles was understaffed, had little infrastructure and technology, said Beeson, who also the sector from 2007 to 2010.
“As activity ramped up, so did our implementation of fencing,” he said. Now, “almost all of it is fenced to one degree or another.”
The agency also added technology and by 2010 had more than tripled its agents to nearly 1,000.
Today, Yuma has about 800 agents. Next to Big Bend, that’s the smallest staff of the Southwest Border Patrol sectors.
Yuma was also among the first sectors to adopt Operation Streamline, which quickly prosecutes people caught crossing illegally as a deterrent.
“All of that sent the message that Yuma was not desirable place to cross,” Beeson said.
Smugglers want $4,500
For decades, Mexicans made up the majority of the Border Patrol arrests. Some years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Tucson Sector made close to half a million arrests and the vast majority were from Mexico, particularly men who were caught and deported multiple times.
But today, more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here since the end of the Great Recession, the Pew Research Center reported. That’s due to tougher border enforcement, a lower fertility rate in Mexico, more educational opportunities there and a stronger Mexican economy.
That’s not to say Mexicans aren’t attempting to cross any more.
Tomás Nava and Diego Juárez stopped by the Aid Center for Deported Migrants last week. The small dining hall just across the border in Nogales, Sonora, also known as the comedor, is run by the binational Kino Border Initiative.
Nava and Juárez met at an immigration detention center where they spent more than two months after crossing the border illegally.
It wasn’t a first for either of them and it probably won’t be the last, they said. That’s even though smugglers charge more than $4,500 for the trip and often take advantage of migrants. Nava was sent with only a cellphone to cross on his own through Douglas while Juárez said he was charged a “passage fee” by organized crime to start his walk through the west desert.
“I have a family but I make very little here,” said Juárez, 32. When there’s work, he does construction earning less than $60 a week. He has two daughters, ages 9 and 12. “They are going to school and when there’s no work, you look north to those who have made it and saved their money, built their homes.”
Nava, 28, is not married and doesn’t have children, but he wants to help his parents and build a house, he said. He knows that succeeding at crossing is hard, but when he sees others who have been lucky, he said, “You have that same hope that you, too, will be able to build a house, be able to help your family.”
He wishes there were more and better jobs in Mexico, he said. “If they paid better, there wouldn’t be so many people migrating.
He, too, works in construction in his home state of Guanajuato.
“You would stay here with your family,” instead of suffering far away from them, added Juárez. “There are many times you cry.”
The Nogales aid center serves mostly recently deported people, but also some in transit.
Those in transit, said Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative and a Jesuit priest, are pushed by economic need, family reunification and violence.
For those who have been deported, there are three scenarios, he said: return home, often with the help of the Mexican consulate, stay in Nogales and look for work, or try to cross again.
Making that decision can be paralyzing, Carroll said. In 2015, the center served more than 40,000 meals and housed nearly 500 people in its shelter, Carroll said. Even though the numbers are half of what they were seven years ago, the need is still great. Nogales is the central point for deportations from Arizona.
At the end of the day, he said, what’s needed is to address the root causes of migration: invest in economic development in sending countries; reform the U.S. visa system to reunite families, and work with countries to address issues of violence.
Luis Ahuelican was trying to decide what to do when he stopped by the aid center on Thursday. He has tried to cross four times: once through Reynosa, twice through Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and once through Altar, Sonora. He got caught all four times.
The 18-year-old had been released because he was underage, but the sister he was traveling with got jail time twice. She’s detained in Arizona and faces a sentence of up to nine months, he said.
He doesn’t know if he’ll try again. He has siblings in Texas and doesn’t see a future in his home state of Guerrero, which is plagued with violence.
At this point, he said, his siblings owe thousands of dollars on the failed attempts and his parents, who work in the fields, are growing old.
His dream is to “save enough money to secure a good future for my parents, enough so they’ll live well,” he said.
As an adult now, he faces jail time next time he gets caught.
“I’ve always had that possibility in mind,” he said. “But you have to learn to defeat that fear because you can’t give up that easily.”