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242 people, including families & children, cross into U.S. near Lukeville

In the last week, more than 400 people from Central America have turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents in Arizona after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, part of a dramatic shift that began last fall and has continued throughout the fight over new border barriers in Washington. 

On Thursday morning, Border Patrol agents from Ajo encountered 242 people from Central America, about 10 to 12 miles west of Lukeville, 109 miles southwest of Tucson. 

Since September, large groups of families and unaccompanied children began arriving in the remote desert area, where Mexico's Highway 2 runs close to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Wildlife Refuge, and last Wednesday that trend continued as 242 people arrived by bus and crossed into the U.S.

A spokesman for BP's Tucson Sector said buses heading from east to west pulled over on Highway 2, just 300 feet from the U.S.-Mexico border, and that the group "trickled in together," climbing over or under the vehicle barriers that mark the border, before forming up into a single large group. 

The group included 119 children traveling with their parents or guardians, and another 11 children arrived without a legal guardian, the spokesman said. Almost of them immediately asked for "some kind of protected status," he said. "There's just be an explosion of groups in this area," the spokesman said. "And, this is on top of our usual business, we're still facing people carrying drugs into the United States and human smuggling." 

On Dec. 20, just days before the government shut down, Tucson Sector agents came across 306 people in a 24-hour period, but the largest single group remains the one that arrived near Yuma on Jan. 14, and included 376 people traveling either as families and unaccompanied children. 

From October to January, the number of family units crossing into the United States through the Tucson Sector has increased 231 percent over the same period last fiscal year, according to agency statistics. A year earlier, the agency faced a "surge" of 142 percent from 2017. 

Overall, 8,797 people have come into the U.S. states in 53 large groups, arriving in not only the Yuma and Tucson Sectors, but also the El Paso Sector, which covers the border from the Arizona-New Mexico border to just past the city of El Paso, and the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which covers the southern tip of Texas to Louisiana. 

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In the boot-heel region of New Mexico two large groups arrived in the last few weeks, near Antelope Wells, N.M. 

On Jan. 16, a group of 247 migrants turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents, and just a week later, 306 people were taken into custody, reported the Albuquerque Journal.

Nationally, almost 85 percent of the people apprehended by Border Patrol were families, while around 11.5 percent were children traveling without parents, according to agency statistics. 

Just four percent of the people apprehended were single adults, the agency said. 

All but a handful of people were from one of the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, mostly from Guatemala, the agency said. 

In January alone, at least 985 people came to Arizona in six separate incidents, according to data from Border Patrol's own statements, compiled by TucsonSentinel.com. 

This includes the largest group to enter the United States at once when 376 people dug beneath the fence in several places near San Luis on Jan. 13. Days later, a group of 110 or more that used a ladder to climb over the metal bollard wall in the same area. 

On Sunday, 49 people who used a ladder to climb over an "outdated" section of wall. During that incident, a 3-year-girl fell off the ladder, and received "minor injuries," said a Yuma Sector spokesman. 

In an infrared video published on Twitter, a group of people climb up a ladder on the south side of the fence, and then jump or fall to the dusty ground. As the video ends, two men in Mexico walk south carrying the ladder while the group waits for agents in Arizona. 

On Wednesday, Yuma Sector published new video that showed a group of 123 running past vehicle barriers near Yuma, an area that includes a complex layer of secondary and tertiary fencing in some places, but is more open along the banks of the Colorado River. 

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The increasing size of the groups has strained resources at the Border Patrol's remote stations, the agency has reiterated for months, but following the deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody in the El Paso Sector, DHS officials have pressed the idea that there is a "humanitarian crisis" on the border. 

Last fiscal year, nearly 40 percent of all apprehensions were either family units or unaccompanied children, but in October and November, this has risen to 57 percent, according to agency data. 

However, total apprehensions have continued to decline overall. In the fiscal year of 2014, Customs and Border Protection apprehended 569,237 people along the border. 

This includes both people defined as "inadmissible" at U.S. ports and people apprehended between the ports. In fiscal year 2018, just over 521,000 people were apprehended by CBP. 

While the number of people apprehended by CBP has declined, the agency finds itself hamstrung by rules that keep the federal government from simply deporting people to Mexico, as it did for the last decade to Mexican citizens, and the rising number of children means that the agency—beholden to an agreement the federal government made as part of a 1997-era class-action lawsuit—cannot hold families indefinitely. 

The agency's main response has been punitive measures like the "family separation" program, which took children from their parents so that the adults could be prosecuted for illegal entry or re-entry,  while their children languished in either special facilities or foster homes. And, in recent weeks, the agency has announced that it would begin returning people to Mexico. 

On Monday, the first asylum seekers were returned to Tijuana, where they're required to wait for their case to be completed. A CBP spokesman said that the agency was focused on the program, renamed the Migrant Protection Protocols, at the San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego, and had yet to expand the program in Arizona. 

Health concerns 

"Illicit transnational criminal organizations exploit the vulnerability of foreign nationals with false promises of legal status and encourage dangerous border crossings, placing lives at risk," said a Tucson Sector spokesman. 

He noted that "trained" staff from the Department of Homeland Security were flown by helicopter to the Ajo station, where they screened every child in the group as well as adults "with medical complaints." Two children had a high fever and were sent to a local hospital for treatment, he said. "If not for the DHS medical staff, several more would have required transportation to local hospitals for advanced medical examination, removing agents from border security operations," the spokesman said. 

DHS said that U.S. Border Patrol agents have spent more than 19,000 hours "providing support" to hospital visit by transporting 2,224 people to local hospitals since Dec. 22. 

"This includes transportation to and from, and over watch for each person/family at the hospital," a DHS official said, adding that this means there are fewer agents "performing border security duties." 

One group of 247 people—likely the group that arrived at the port of entry at Antelope Wells on Jan. 16—included 50 people who "required immediate treatment/evaluation from a medical professional at a hospital," he said. 

"Transporting 50 individuals to the hospital utilized nearly all available agents, severely limiting their ability to process the large group or respond to other border security duties; thus resulting in increased time in custody, delaying custody transfer coordination, and inhibiting response to other illegal cross-border traffic," DHS said. 

DHS officials said that smugglers and traffickers use large groups as "cover" while Border Patrol agents are occupied, noting three large seizures over a three-day period beginning on Jan. 16 that occurred while agents dealt with large groups. This included seizure of 265 pounds of marijuana, a seizure of 705 pounds of cocaine, and a seizure of nearly 1,100 pounds of marijuana. 

DHS did not identify where these seizures were made. 

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A group of 242 people crossed into the United States and turned themselves over to Ajo-area Border Patrol agents near Lukeville, Ariz., last week.