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Border Patrol agents detain 231 Central Americans in Arizona's SW desert

Two weeks after a group of nearly 400 Central Americans crossed into the U.S. near Lukeville, Arizona, Border Patrol agents encountered 231 people in the area, including families and children traveling alone, authorities said.

Around 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, Ajo-area BP agents using a surveillance camera on a high hill known as "Roller Coaster" near Quitobaquito Springs spotted a "mild heat signature" and sent agents to the area. As agents approached, cameras "continued to watch the groups while agents moved into the area," an agency spokesman said. 

Along with agents, a Department of Homeland Security health team was deployed to help with medical evaluations for the group, which included 231 people, "mostly family units and unaccompanied juveniles from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador," he said. 

The group was "overwhelmingly" made up of families traveling from Guatemala, he said. The group included 16 children traveling without parents or guardians, and five single adults. 

Over the last eight months, hundreds of people — most seeking asylum because of the violence in their Central American home countries — have entered the United States in this area, west of Lukeville. The small border town 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 either by "Normandy barriers," x-shaped steel barriers designed to stymie vehicles, or by bollard-style barriers.

Two weeks ago, a group of nearly 400 people crossed into the U.S. in the same area after they were driven to the border aboard chartered buses as part of what Border Patrol officials said was part of "an alarming trend."  

On April 16, Border Patrol agents said that a group of 399 people, including 230 children, crossed into the U.S. and that officials marshaled at least two shifts, including dozens of agents, to process and transport the group, including 199 children traveling with their parents, and 31 children traveling without parents or guardians, including both infants and teenagers. This required shutting down a nearby checkpoint as the agency "allocated an entire station" to transport and process the group. 

During an interview with reporters two weeks ago, Tucson Sector BP chief Roy Villareal said that group of nearly 400 was the 40th group of more than 100 to enter Arizona recently. The group that entered Tuesday would be number 41. 

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From December 21, 2018 to April 22, 2019, officials with Enforcement and Removal Operations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said they have released 153,000 people traveling as families, this includes around 26,700 people in Arizona, said Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman. 

The rising numbers of Central America asylum-seekers presaged the sudden firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other DHS officials this spring, 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 U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and in March, apprehensions jumped again to 104,212 people. 

Once people are taken into custody by Border Patrol, the agency records their fingerprints and other data, checks their information against criminal databases, and then hands them over to ICE. Then, they are released on “Orders of Release on Recognizance” with a requirement to appear in courts across the nation.

Overall, about 7,000 to 7,500 people have come through Tucson since January, said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry. 

A CBP spokesman said the agency was still compiling how many people have been released directly into Tucson this year. 

On Monday, President Donald Trump ordered major changes to U.S. asylum policies, telling officials in the immigration system to adjudicate asylum claims within 180-days, charge a fee for requesting humanitarian protection in the U.S., and blocking anyone who crosses the border without authorization from obtaining a work permit. 

This follows a series of attempted changes following the president's emergency declaration, a move made after his efforts were blunted by Congress during a 35-day-long shutdown of the federal government after congressional representatives refused to fund his plan to build new border barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

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Officials at DHS have responded in part by asking staff and employees to join a "volunteer" force to help "frontline" agencies, including CBP and ICE, by signing up for a range of jobs, including appearing in immigration courts on the "government's behalf" and transporting people to hospitals and staying there until they were cleared for travel. 

The level of internal pressure being placed on DHS employees to leave their regular jobs to work at the border is unclear, but internal sources told TucsonSentinel.com that some encouragement by supervisors is evident and the future may bring more direct pressures.

At the same time, Pentagon officials have hinted at the possibility that they would use military lawyers to adjudicate immigration cases. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

'Roller coaster' hill in a remote area of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where 231 people crossed into the U.S. Tuesday morning.