At its peak, Border Patrol agents made more than 600,000 apprehensions in a year in the Tucson sector – an average of about 400 per agent.

But it didn’t overwhelm the system as it is happening now in South Texas because many were young men or, to a smaller degree, children from Mexico.

So far this fiscal year, the Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas has made more than 200,000 apprehensions, the most in the nation. Of those, 76 percent are from countries other than Mexico and more than half are families and children traveling alone.

“The majority are not the traditional flow that Tucson and the rest of nation saw,” said David Aguilar, who led the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector from 1999 to 2004 and retired as the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection last year. “These people are not being apprehended, they are actually turning themselves in.”

For the unaccompanied juveniles, especially those from countries other than Mexico or Canada, a 2008 anti-trafficking law requires their transfer to a shelter run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Many of them are released to stay with a family member already in the United States while their case is pending.

Parents who cross with their children cannot be detained with the general population. Until recently, there was only one family detention center in the country — and it only held about 90 people.

So far this year, nearly 63,000 unaccompanied youth and about the same number of families have been apprehended along the Southwest border – three quarters of them in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It creates particularly difficult challenges for the Border Patrol, and ultimately for the country and immigration policy, in how to respond,” said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.

The government started opening military bases in 2012, when the number of unaccompanied minors increased from 15,700 to 24,000 in one year. More bases opened this year to temporarily house children and youth. In Nogales, an old warehouse, which had been converted to a processing center in the early 2000s, reopened in June and housed thousands of children until bed space in shelters became available.

“It really has pushed the system way beyond what has been the practice and the experience in the past,” said Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Apprehensions down

Overall, Border Patrol apprehensions are nowhere close to where they were before the recession, when they topped 1 million in a year.

In 2000, the Tucson sector had 616,000 apprehensions, the most of any sector since at least 1992.

About 1,500 agents patrolled 262 miles of border with hardly any roads and only 11 miles fenced.

Nogales, a town of roughly 20,000 people, had about 500 taxis to serve the new arrivals.

“Back then a cab driver who had a minivan who could put nine people in it and charge about $35 per person to take them to Tucson,” said Zack Taylor, chairman of the National Association of Border Patrol Officers. Taylor was a supervisor in the Nogales station from 1988 to 2003 and still lives in Rio Rico.

“These smugglers were adapting to Border Patrol operations,” he said. “That’s what they do, they constantly adapt.”

The urban areas – Nogales and Douglas – were the busiest because there were so few agents and resources that smugglers didn’t have to take people to remote areas to make it across.

At its high point, Nogales had more than 2,000 apprehensions a day.

In Douglas, hundreds of people could be seen at one time walking through the downtown area.

Fences were constantly being torn down. Clothes hung out to dry at homes near the border disappeared regularly.

Today, the sector has more than 4,000 agents, 210 miles of some type of fencing, bases closer to the border and technology to include additional video surveillance towers in remote areas.

Last fiscal year, an agent in the Tucson sector averaged fewer than 30 apprehensions. Sometimes an agent can work an entire shift without catching a single person.

But what has gone up are the marijuana seizures — from 200,000 pounds in 2000 to more than a million in 2013.

As Border Patrol Agent Bryan Flowers drove by the border fence in Naco one recent morning, he passed fellow agents parked about half a mile away from each other.

The previous day they had seized a load of drugs in that area, but nothing that morning. All quiet, the agents said.

He kept driving through parts of the fence, which varies from barbwire and Normandy-style barriers to keep cars out to 10-feet old landing mats and 20-feet-tall bollard-style fences.

Eventually, a Cochise County Sheriff’s deputy flagged him down. A woman had reported that she came home from dropping her children off at school to find a man dressed in black sitting in her living room. He refused to leave, saying he had been told smugglers would pick him up there. She called the police.

Flowers, a spokesman for the Tucson sector, and the deputy searched the area, thick with mesquite trees and tall grass due to the recent rains. But the border crosser was nowhere to be seen.

Flow from Mexico slows

The number of Central American children and women crossing the border is unprecedented, but a surge from what is called the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is not.

Central Americans have become a larger share of apprehensions as the flow from Mexico slows. And the traditional route for this group has been South Texas because it’s the shortest distance.

In the early- to mid-2000s, large numbers crossed through Eagle Pass, using a golf course that hugs the Rio Grande. While Border Patrol agents could process Mexicans in 15 minutes and send them back that day, Central Americans require travel documents and flight arrangements, which takes time.

Because the government lacked bed space, most of them were released with a notice to appear at an immigration court in a few weeks at their final destination – much like what is happening now.

Not all immigrants showed up to their court dates and word got out about the loophole. Scores of Central and South Americans started openly crossing through the Del Rio sector in hopes of getting caught.

Eagle Pass station holding cells were stretched beyond capacity.

“The processing area became a makeshift dormitory,” according to a 2010 article in Customs and Border Protection magazine Frontline. “The floor of the entire facility was covered with people sitting, waiting to be processed, sleeping and eating.”

In 2005, the Border Patrol launched a program called Operation Streamline with the idea that everyone caught in a designated area would be prosecuted, regardless of nationality. Until then, prosecutions were rare. The program was later expanded to other sectors, including Yuma and Tucson.

Look at system Required

Slowing the surge of crossers into South Texas will take more than just enforcement, former Tucson sector chief Aguilar said, it’s going to require a look at the entire system, not just the Border Patrol.

“This is not a problem that’s going to go away if we don’t start addressing the disease as opposed to continuing to address the symptoms,” he said.

For example, the immigration removal system needs to be revamped and expanded, he said.

As it stands, crossers released into the United States “walk out the door and walk into a system that by the time they get in front of an immigration judge two or three years later, they have developed equities, in some cases grown up into adults, gotten married, had children,” he said. “That’s why they think it’s a permiso.”

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or 573-4210. On Twitter: @Perla Trevizo