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Border Patrol finds nearly 400 Central Americans in Arizona desert Tuesday morning

Groups arriving in Lukeville part of 'untenable situation'

Border Patrol agents encountered the largest single group of Central American migrants yet in the Tucson Sector on Tuesday morning, detaining 393 people, including 230 children, about 14 miles west of Lukeville, Ariz.

Managing the group required shutting down a nearby checkpoint and the agency "allocated an entire station," Roy Villareal, the chief of the Tucson Sector, told reporters Tuesday afternoon. Officials marshaled at least two shifts, including dozens of agents, to process and transport nearly 400 people, including 199 children traveling with their parents, and 31 children traveling without parents or guardians, including both infants and teenagers. 

Villareal said that three chartered buses drove up along Mexico's Highway 2 and "dropped off" people in a span of 20 to 30 minutes in an area that has increasingly become a final staging ground for people traveling up through Mexico. 

As he spoke, BP agents showed infrared video recorded at the scene by surveillance cameras, displaying ghostly figures moving from a highway to a line marked as the U.S.-Mexico border.

The rising numbers of Central America asylum-seekers presaged the sudden firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other DHS officials, as the Trump administration continues to struggle to mitigate rising apprehensions despite increasingly hard-nosed tactics against people trying to seek protection in the U.S. 

In recent weeks, Trump administration officials have said they are facing "unprecedented" numbers of migrants along the southwestern border, and the number of people taken into custody by agents has jumped 35 percent from February to March, following a rising trend over the last six months. 

Of those, nearly 65 percent were either families with children, or children traveling without a parent or guardian. Most hail from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. However, even the number of single adults, who are more easily detained and ultimately deported, increased 29 percent from February to March, officials said.

In February, the agency reported that total apprehensions jumped 38 percent from January, after 76,537 people were taken into custody by CBP, and in March, apprehensions jumped again to 104,212 people. 

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In part, this is driven "large groups" of people of 100 or more. During a press call last week, Brian Hastings, chief of the Border Patrol's law enforcement operations, said that on March 28, the agency had hit an "unsettling milestone" after the 100th group of 100 or more crossed into the U.S. 

The group that entered Tuesday was the 40th group of more than 100 to enter Arizona, Villareal said. 

The migrants crossed in a region where hundreds of people have entered the United States, west of Lukeville, a small border town that is surrounded by the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, about 110 miles southwest of Tucson. Here, Mexico's Highway 2 comes within 120 yards of the U.S.-Mexico border, and is guarded by "Normandy barriers," — bollard-style barriers designed to stymie vehicles. 

The agency is "facing an alarming trend in the rising volume of people illegally crossing our Southwest border," said Rob Daniels, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The vast majority of the recent migrants from the chaos-wracked nations of Central America have been turning themselves in to border and immigration officials as soon as possible after they cross, in order to claim asylum here. U.S. law provides for requesting asylum no matter the circumstances of an individual's arrival in this country.

Villareal said that the group arrived around 6 a.m., and that by late Tuesday afternoon agents were still managing the group. 

Villareal said that the agency has been "speaking about these large groups" and turning themselves in, but that Tuesday's group was "alarming" because it was mostly children. 

"What’s problematic about this is that when we talk about the humanitarian crisis,  smugglers are exploiting these very vulnerable people in the desert," by dropping them off, Villareal said. 

Villareal said that the Lukeville area had become a draw for people because it's close to the border, and while there's "limited infrastructure" on the U.S. side, access on the Mexican side is "robust."

"Part of the draw, it’s easy, they recognize that they can walk right across — it’s orchestrated. Let’s not be deceived here, this is an orchestrated effort by a criminal syndicate," Villareal said. "There are thousands of dollars being generated by this effort." 

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He also said that smugglers were coaching people to "exploit the loopholes in our legal system" by requesting asylum. He did not know how many from Tuesday's group had gone through "credible fear" interviews or how many had requested asylum. 

"Part of this crisis is the fact that they’ve been coached by the alien smugglers to exploit the loophole in our legal system, which is to request asylum,"  Smugglers recognize that "there’s limited detention space, particularly for family units, particularly for children; which means that in a span of 20 days, they’re going to be released."

Last summer, DHS's Nielsen — abruptly ousted last week — made similar arguments, saying that Central American families were exploiting "legal loopholes" in the U.S. system, including a complex agreement made between the U.S. government and the American Civil Liberties Union following a 1997 lawsuit known as the Flores Settlement, which limits how long children can be held in standard detention facility to 20 days. 

As rain pitter-pattered of the roof of the Tucson Sector Border Patrol station, Villareal said that he was worried about similar situations in the summer when the "heat is going to take a toll on people — especially children." 

Villaral also said that "criminal aliens" are using the "chaos" to move across the border, noting that while agents were managing large groups of Central American migrants, seeking asylum in the U.S., in March, the agency also intercepted 16 men accused of a range of crimes, including child molestation, robbery, and "an assortment of other crimes." 

"They use the vulnerability created by this humanitarian crisis to exploit gaps in our border," Villareal said. "This group today created a tremendous gap." 

"The arriving flow is made up primarily of Central American families and unaccompanied children. This stark and increasing shift to more vulnerable populations, combined with the overwhelming numbers, and inadequate capacity to detain families and children has created a humanitarian and border security crisis," Daniels said. "The increase in apprehensions is taxing the entire immigration system," especially U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP, he said, creating an "untenable situation" for  agents and migrants. 

With the large number of migrant families, the agency will have to shift agents and detainees, and there's a finite limit to how many people the agency can take. 

"The group has a tremendous impact on our detention capability," Villareal said. There are nine stations in the Tucson Sector, he said, and the group will require the agency to "siphon the group to different stations for processing."

"The impact means that every station in the Tucson Sector will have to participate in processing as expeditiously and humanely as possible," Villareal said. 

He noted that the El Paso Sector took into custody close to 600 people on Tuesday, and agents in the Yuma Sector said that over 1,000 people have been picked up in the last three days. 

Villareal said that he wasn’t aware of anyone in this group needed medical care, but anyone who is taken into custody goes through a medical screening and “if they require medical attention, it’s provided.” 

Until December, it was unclear if the agency provided medical care, but after the deaths of two children in Border Patrol custody in the El Paso Sector, the agency doubled efforts and expanded the number of medical professionals who are assigned to remote stations or can otherwise provide at least some screening before immigrants are sent to local hospitals. 

This is the second large group to enter near Lukeville in a week-long period, after 135 people crossed into the U.S. last Tuesday.

Additional Border Patrol agents were "diverted" to provide "humanitarian, transportation, and processing assistance for the large group," the spokesman said, adding that Ajo Border Patrol agents "quickly worked" to determine of anyone in the group needed medical attention, and then began transporting people to the nearby station for processing, Daniels said. 

Officials from the National Park Service, which manages the Organ Pipe refuge, also assisted, he said.

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A group of Central American migrants who entered near Lukeville, Ariz., in early January.

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