Groups of women with their children continue to be dropped off each day at the Greyhound station in Tucson, but they no longer come from south Texas. Instead, all of them tried to enter the United States through Arizona.
Ana Carrillo waited at the bus station recently as her two children, 4-year-old Lady and 6-year-old Abner, ran around with other children in the waiting area.
The Guatemala native crossed through Agua Prieta, east of Tucson, after the smuggler she hired to get her over the border robbed her of her last 1,000 pesos — roughly $75 — in the middle of the night and told her to run.
She’s not sure how far she went before she saw a Border Patrol agent, but her children were tired and crying.
“I was praying to God to please help me,” she said in Spanish while she waited for her bus to leave for Memphis, where she has a brother.
Lady’s face was covered in red spots — a reaction to the intense heat, her mother said. Their lips were so chapped from dehydration and the sun that volunteers ran to a nearby store to get ChapStick.
More than a year ago, volunteers from immigration advocacy group Casa Mariposa, who go to the bus station to help those released from immigration detention centers in the state, started seeing more women and children, said Blake Gentry, a volunteer coordinator.
Until Memorial Day, they would see about five to seven women with a child, maybe one with two children. Then the number jumped into the dozens.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it was processing 400 people who had been transferred from south Texas over the Memorial Day weekend.
Most of the women didn’t know where they were or how to buy their bus ticket. They were hungry and dehydrated, and they needed basic things such as diapers for their babies.
This fiscal year, there’s been a surge not only in children coming across the border without a parent or guardian, but also of women traveling with their young sons and daughters, mostly through south Texas. Federal officials have not released sector numbers, but nationwide, Border Patrol has detained more than 39,000 adults with children so far this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.
The government can’t hold women with their children amid the general detainee population; there’s only one facility in the country, and it has fewer than 100 beds. So many are released at bus stations in the Southwest, including Tucson and Phoenix, with a notice to appear before an immigration official at their final destination – normally where they have relatives. The federal government has not said how many have been released.
When news broke of the large number of women and children being dropped off in Arizona, there was an outcry from state officials, including a threat to sue by Attorney General Tom Horne.
On June 7, Customs and Border Protection released a statement saying the El Paso Sector was helping to process families apprehended in south Texas, while Tucson was prepared and expected to continue to process unaccompanied children.
Volunteers with the Phoenix Restoration Project said they are still seeing adults from the Florence and Eloy detention centers being released most nights, but they haven’t seen families from Texas for about two weeks.
Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the federal government will open more centers to hold families, starting with one in New Mexico for up to 700 adults and children.
Although most of the surge is coming from south Texas, Border Patrol officials and area nonprofits worry that those still coming through the Tucson Sector face some of the deadliest months of the year.
“What’s abnormal is that we are not seeing the drop-off we normally see during the hottest months of the year,” Gentry said. Since September, Casa Mariposa has helped more than 6,000 people at the Tucson bus station.
Last June, a Guatemalan woman with a 1½-year-old baby strapped to her back and her 17-year-old son were stranded in the desert in triple-digit heat. She was so desperate that she called Border Patrol to turn herself in.
In April, Border Patrol officials warned that this could be a particularly tragic summer if they didn’t handle the issue of women and children crossing through the desert.
At the bus station are women who jumped the fence near Nogales, walked through the desert by Agua Prieta and even turned themselves in at ports of entry. But some crossed through the Tohono O’odham Nation at some of the most desolate and deadliest parts of the border.
Many are fleeing violence and poverty, they said. But in their villages they’ve also been hearing about permisos, the government notices to appear in court once they reach their intended destination. While most Mexican nationals can be turned back quickly, with Central Americans, in particular children, it’s more complicated.
Carrillo, the mother of two at the bus station, said life is extremely hard in Guatemala. Her husband left her for another woman, something several women said was becoming prevalent in their community.
“My mom said it didn’t used to be like this,” she said. “When people got together, it was for the rest of their lives.”
She wants to come to work and save money to buy a piece of land and build a home for her children, she said, “so that they don’t grow up without even a piece of land.”