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Lanes blocked, wait times grow at Nogales port after rush of asylum seekers

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On Monday afternoon, police officers with the Nogales, Sonora, city government were checking cars and passengers as they drove into Arizona.

NOGALES, Arizona — Metal barriers now block three vehicle lanes at Nogales’ downtown port of entry, days after asylum seekers rushed up to the lanes to make their claims.

On Monday afternoon, three lines of vehicles stretched south from the port and disappeared over the horizon into downtown Nogales, Sonora. Three vehicle lanes remained open, as well as two lanes for travelers with special passes to cross quickly.

Drivers were waiting five hours to cross into Arizona from Nogales, Sonora, on Monday, according to Customs and Border Protection. Average wait times in November and December rarely go above two hours, CBP’s historical data shows.

The extended delays came after vehicle lanes were “reduced” at the downtown Nogales port and the Mariposa port on the city’s west side “following a significant increase of asylum seekers using vehicle lanes to circumvent the immigration process” on the evening of Nov. 26, CBP said in a Nov. 27 news release.

“In recent days, there has been an increase of incursions through vehicle lanes at Arizona ports of entry by asylum seekers attempting to evade established entry processes,” CBP said Monday in a statement.

“These tactics interfere with CBP officers conducting their responsibilities and exacerbates wait times for daily commuters.”

“CBP officers are well-trained law enforcement professionals who stand ready to defend the border and uphold the laws of the United States of America,” the CBP statement said. “CBP will not allow ports to be overrun, or unauthorized entry. Security measures will be increased as needed to ensure priorities are safely met.”

Since last year, a CBP practice known as “metering” has allowed a small number of people to claim asylum each day, leaving thousands to wait their turn to make their claims at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.

A group of Cuban men and women waited anxiously near the downtown Nogales port on Monday. Each one had a number taped to the back of their passport, showing their spot on a list of people waiting to cross legally and make an asylum claim. Their numbers were above 5,600. The most recent numbers called were about 3,100, they said.

The barricades, which resemble shipping containers, were installed last week at the downtown port of entry and the Mariposa port, said Arturo Garino, mayor of Nogales, Arizona.

Drivers were waiting five hours to cross into Arizona from Nogales, Sonora, on Monday, according to Customs and Border Protection. Average wait times in November and December rarely go above two hours, data shows.

Some of the containers were removed last Wednesday, but over the weekend CBP encountered more “runners” at the port and put the barriers back.

Garino said he is not sure whether the barricades will remain for “days, weeks or longer,” but hopes they will not interfere with the busy holiday shopping season.

“This is one of our busiest times of the year and we need the revenue,” Garino said.

Mexican shoppers make up a large part of the sales tax revenue for Nogales, Arizona. On Monday afternoon, a woman leaned against the wall near the Mexican customs office as the pedestrian line to cross into Arizona moved along. A large white bag from the Marshalls department store dangled from her arm. Two other bags were at her feet.

Recent days have seen a sharp increase in wait times for pedestrians in Nogales, including a two-hour wait on Sunday, said Teri Furst, a certified nurse’s aide from Tucson who cares for a woman in Nogales, Sonora.

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Furst has been coming down from Tucson for the past few months, but “last week, it was just like there’s more wait time for cars, more wait time for us, for everybody,” she said.

“My team has talked with CBP,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey told Capitol Media Services on Monday. “We’re confident that they’re on it. They’re doing everything possible to make sure that we’re allowing commerce to flow but also protecting public safety. And we’re going to be supportive of that effort.”

The situation is temporary, Ducey added.

Recent days have seen a sharp increase in wait times for pedestrians in Nogales, including a two-hour wait on Sunday, according to Teri Furst, a certified nurse’s aide from Tucson.

On Monday afternoon, police officers with the Nogales, Sonora, city government were checking cars and passengers as they drove into Arizona, an unusual move for a local police department.

Police took to the vehicle lanes after 76 asylum seekers, some from Russia and Venezuela, tried to cross through the port last week, a local police official told Mexican news outlets.

In some cases, the asylum seekers bought cars in Nogales, Sonora, and drove them up to the port, where they would ask for asylum as soon as they got close enough to customs officers.

In other instances, the asylum seekers would run in between cars toward the port, according to Mexican news reports.

Elsewhere on the Arizona border with Mexico, vehicle lanes at the Naco port of entry may also be reduced due to asylum seekers using vehicle lanes, CBP said in a Nov. 28 news release.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar

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