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The most important border stories of 2018

Last year, we wrote that the election of Donald Trump provided "much of the catalyst" for stories along the border in 2017, but in 2018, the administration was not just the catalyst, but the fuel as the administration doubled down on its policies: sending both the National Guard and active duty military to the border, separating children from their parents in a chaotic policy the administration tried, and failed, to walk back. Meanwhile, federal officials moved to prosecute volunteers with No More Deaths.

TucsonSentinel.com also hosted the most complete coverage of the prosecution of a Border Patrol agent accused of unlawfully shooting and killing a Mexican teenager during a 2012 cross-border incident in Nogales. 

And, we were one of the few news outlets to report on a letter from Homeland Security Investigators asking to split from the rest of the agency so they could do their jobs more effectively, and we published an exclusive memo from the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, downplaying the exodus of migrants from Central American, even as the White House sent active-duty troops to Texas. 

Early in the year, we published a piece of the arrest of Scott Daniel Warren, an ASU professor and No More Deaths volunteer, who was arrested and charged with harboring by U.S. Border Patrol. The arrest came just hours after the Tucson humanitarian group released videos last week showing agents destroying water and food left for those crossing Arizona's deserts.

Four other volunteers also face charges for entering the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refugee, about 125 miles west of Tucson, without proper permits, driving a vehicle in the wilderness, and abandonment of property for leaving food, water and toiletry items in the desert.

In twin pieces, "No More Deaths volunteer arrested, charged with harboring immigrants" and "9 No More Deaths volunteers face charges for leaving water, supplies on wildlife refuge," we reported on the charges. 

The potential consequences of the cases will remain important into 2019, as the government has argued that helping migrants directly, without calling authorities, is harboring and could be prosecuted. Such a move would make it difficult for groups like No More Deaths, the Tucson and Green Valley Samaritans, and others to operate, even as the number of bodies found in the desert remains steady, even as apprehensions have dropped to the lowest level in 40 years. 

We'll be covering more on this as the trial of Warren is likely to begin in mid-January. 

We also focused a great deal of coverage on the prosecution of Lonnie Swartz, who faced second-degree murder charges in March for firing 13 rounds in 34 seconds, hitting 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez 10 times in the back and head. 

After 16 days of trial, Swartz was acquitted of the second-degree murder charge, but the jury could not come to decision on manslaughter charges, requiring a second trial that began in October, that lasted for 15 days until a jury acquitted the agent on one charge.  

In our piece, "Prosecutors: BP agent 'calmly & deliberately' shot at Mexican teenager," we outlined the opening arguments, and then we continued our coverage, including the day when Swartz testified in his defense, and when U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins issued an "Allen Charge" directing the jury to consider deliberating. 

During the second trial, we kept at it, including the confusing end, as jurors marked that Swartz was not-guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but did not mark the other box. 

On Dec. 6, we published a review of the case, and why federal prosecutors could not pursue the voluntary manslaughter charge, in our piece, "Feds won't pursue 3rd trial of BP agent in cross-border shooting." 

In fact our coverage was so extensive, that TucsonSentinel.com's work, along with the Arizona Daily Star, was used as examples of why the trial should be moved to Phoenix by defense lawyers, who argued that they could not find a jury that didn't already know about the case. Ultimately, the case remained in Tucson. 

Next year, TucsonSentinel.com will cover the civil trial filed by the family of Jose Antonio against Swartz that has been held in limbo in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In April, we published an important piece by Debbie Nathan. 

The piece, "How Border Patrol faked statistics showing a 73% rise in assaults against agents," originally published by The Intercept, described how Border Patrol's own statistics on assaults against agents suddenly changed because in one sector, the Rio Grande Valley Sector, in South Texas, agents started counting an incident that involved seven U.S. Border Patrol Agents assaulted by six people using three different types of projectiles was reported as 126 assaults. 

From the piece: "According to conventional law enforcement accounting, this single incident should have been tallied as seven agents assaulted — not seven agents times six perpetrators times three projectiles. Subtracting the seven agents from 126 leaves 119 extra “assaults” that falsely and grossly inflate the data, making it appear to the public that far more agents were assaulted."

In late June, TucsonSentinel.com obtained a letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen by agents running 19 of the agency's 26 field offices — including A. Scott Brown, special agent in charge of the Phoenix field office — that argued that the controversial actions of Enforcement and Removal Operations, the office which regularly conducts immigration raids and arrests, have hampered the investigations of HSI agents. 

In our piece, "Top ICE agents seek to split agency, separate investigations from deportations," we described how moves to "abolish" ICE were linked to frustration with the agency's role in family separations, but the letter illuminated how some of the agency's best investigators were worried that HSI—which operates as DHS's own FBI—wouldn't be as effective. 

In June, we published a recording of children crying after they were separated from their parents at the border, in a piece "Listen to children just separated from their parents at the border," by Ginger Thompson with ProPublica. 

The audio recording of young children crying for their parents added new poignancy to the separation of nearly 2,300 children from the parents after the Trump administration launched it's "zero tolerance" policy, which called for prosecuting adults who entered the country without authorization, and taking away children they brought with them. 

The policy was challenged in court, and ultimately dismantled, but the public outcry was furious. 

In sweltering heat, more than 400 people protested the treatment of migrant children by blocking the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales for hours, one of more than 600 different rallies held across the nation as people expressed their fury at the Trump administration's policy of separating families. 

In our piece, "Photos: 'Families Belong Together' protest blocks Nogales border crossing," we reported on the protest. 

The fury over a administration policy of separating families was 

Though this didn't receive much coverage overall, the August discovery of a 900-foot long smuggling tunnel in San Luis illustrated the difficulty that officials have in stopping smuggling efforts, even as the administration pushed hard of new security infrastructure, including new walls in California, Arizona, and Texas. 

In December, a new tunnel was found in Nogales, as well.

In September, we reported on what became a long-running issue in the borderlands. As officials clamped down on the ports, and the National Guard had been deployed by state governors, dozens of people began arriving in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Wildlife Refuge and turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents. 

In our first piece, "121 immigrants surrender to Border Patrol agents near Lukeville" we described what has become a long-running issue where large groups of families are arriving to remote border outposts. This has the potential to be dangerous, as we reported in December, just a few weeks ago, in New Mexico, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died after she was apprehended with her father and 161 other people in the state's boot-heel region. 

Caal was one of two deaths in the El Paso Sector, but conditions at Border Patrol and ICE facilities may make otherwise treatable sicknesses worse, as we covered in our piece "Long-running lawsuit in Tucson shows perennial problems at border detention centers." 

In October, a "caravan" of migrants became a top national story as the White House fulminated that an exodus of Central American migrants might walk through Mexico and come to the U.S. border to ask for asylum. 

As the administration announced that it would deploy active-duty military to Texas—and the caravan went to Tijuana—we published an exclusive, in our piece "Leaked CBP memo: U.S. 'well-prepared' for caravan traveling through Mexico," showing that the agency believed it was "well-prepared. 

In late December, the administration once again announced a new policy intending to use Mexico as a waiting room for people seeking asylum. 

In our piece, "DHS: Asylum seekers will be returned to Mexico as cases reviewed," we reported on the new "remain in Mexico" policy as DHS continued to seek aggressive, and for advocates dangerous, ways to blunt asylum seekers from entering the United States. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

No More Deaths volunteers in the desert.

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