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As Tucson BP agents see large migrant groups in July, Pima County prepares for more

Since the beginning of July, agents with Border Patrol's Tucson Sector have encountered more than 660 people traveling in large groups in the desert southwest of Tucson, including dozens of children traveling without parents or guardians, authorities said.

The arrivals of large groups comes just as Pima County officials said that the number of migrant families from June is "approaching the numbers that occurred on average in 2019," adding that Casa Alitas, the shelter supported by the county, may face numbers 3-4 times as high by the end of July.

On Wednesday morning, Border Patrol agents encountered more than 197 people traveling as a group, including 147 children traveling without parents or guardians, authorities said.

Around 7:15 a.m., BP agents discovered the group near San Miguel, about 65 miles southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O'odham Nation, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector said in a news release.

Officials said that the children were mostly from Guatemala.

Even as the Trump administration pursued hard-nosed tactics to block people from seeking asylum in the United States, through late 2018 and 2019, Tucson Sector agents encountered more than a dozen large groups of people who immediately surrendered to U.S. officials, mostly made up of families with children from Central American seeking asylum in this country.

Through 2020, those numbers declined drastically, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The total number of encounters declined for months, until April 2020, when they began to rise again, increasing month-to-month under the Trump administration. Republicans moved to blame the incoming Biden administration, decrying a "crisis" along the border, as overall encounters have continued to rise across the border, largely driven both because of, and in spite of, Trump-era policies.

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In a memo to Pima County officials, Shane Clark, the county's director of emergency management, wrote on June 30 that the "flow of asylum seekers is now approaching the numbers that occurred on average in 2019," adding that in the last week of June, there were 615 releases of families released to Casa Alitas and the county.

Clark wrote that there were several challenges to manage, especially if there's a change in federal law, allowing more migrants into the U.S.

"We have been told that is when the numbers processed and entering the United States through our corridor will be 3-4 times the numbers of 2019 when the county averaged 100/day," he wrote. He said that Casa Alitas, the shelter supported by the county in a formerly vacant section of the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center, received 615 in the last week of June. This includes people from the Yuma Sector, as well as the Tucson Sector.

Notably, children who traveling without parents, otherwise known as unaccompanied, are not sent to Casa Alitas, but are instead held in CBP custody at a "tent-like facility" on Tucson's South Side before they are transferred to the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Clark wrote that there are now a twice-daily releases from the Nogales Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, and that the county is transporting migrants from Nogales to Casa Alitas. The county is managing transportation between a hotel used to help shelter people because Casa Alitas' capacity is restricted because of COVID-19 protocols, and the airport or bus station.

While U.S. border crossings remain almost entirely closed to asylum-seekers, in recent months, CBP has processed hundreds of people who waited at the border under the Migrant Protection Protocols. Previously called "Remain in Mexico," MPP required those seeking asylum under U.S. law to stay in Mexico while their case wound through the American immigration court system. However, earlier this year, the Biden administration announced it would draw down the MPP system.

By the end of May, around 40 percent of cases, or about 10,300 people, were allowed to enter the U.S., though data shows that process slowed dramatically in May, as CBP said that the pace of transfers is determined by the agency's capacity to "safely process" MPP cases.

Clark added that the city of Tucson is managing about 180 rooms in Tucson-area hotels where migrants are temporarily housed, and warned that positive COVID-19 cases can impact the capacity because while most people stay just 1-2 days, migrants that are COVID-19 positive "require resting and medical checks."

Clark said that city officials were "attempting" to add more hotels to support the "anticipated surge."

In his memo to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry wrote that the city of Tucson was the "primary provider" of hotel rooms for migrants, and that Tucson is "fully reimbursed for these costs," through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Food and Emergency Shelter Grant. "The county received an advance of $2.4 million," Huckelberry wrote.

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While overall encounters have dropped since April—when Tucson Sector BP agents encountered more than 20,000 people along the U.S.-Mexico border—agents here encountered 18,385 people in June, data released last week shows. Single adults comprised nearly 16,000 people, while there were about 1,240 people traveling as families. Another 1,699 people were unaccompanied children, traveling without parents or guardians in June. 

Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection—Border Patrol's parent agency—said that while the overall number of "encounters" tracked by U.S. Customs and Border Protection has risen to more than 1.1 million this fiscal year, the number of individual people crossing this year has declined from 2019 levels.

Many people have attempted to cross more than once this year, said CBP officials, and 34 percent of encounters in June were people who had at least one prior encounter over the last 12 months. Some people picked up by Border Patrol agents have crossed three or more times in the past year, and have quickly tried to come to the United States again after being immediately deported under policies instituted by the Trump administration.

Even in early February, CBP officials said that out of 100,000 people encountered that month, roughly 75,000 were unique individuals, highlighting how Title 42 has driven up statistics as the Biden administration attempts to unravel Trump-era policies.

Of those who entered the U.S. through the Tucson Sector, 14,891 people were immediately expelled under Title 42— a policy ostensibly supported by the CDC that allows the agency to rapidly deport those who crossed into the U.S. after they traveled through a country with COVID-19 infections.

The remaining 3,500 people were either allowed to seek asylum under U.S. law, or in at least 241 cases, prosecuted under U.S. law for illegal entry. The U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Arizona said they prosecuted 241 people for illegal entry after deportation, and around 108 people had been deported three or more times.

Tucson Sector officials said that just two days earlier, agents encountered a group of 48 people near Sasabe, about 18 miles east of San Miguel. That group included 37 children, from age 5 to 17. And, 27 of the children were from Guatemala.

John R. Modlin, the chief of the Tucson Sector, tweeted a photo of the group, which showed dozens of people waiting in several neat lines, with a few carrying backpacks.

Just a week earlier, Modlin tweeted a picture, showing a group of around 70 people, who were also found near San Miguel, including more than 40 unaccompanied children.

On July 13, Modlin tweeted two photos, writing that in less than 12 hours, two large groups of people, totaling more than 160 migrants surrendered to agents. The groups included over 80 children, primarily from Guatemala.

And, on July 9, Modlin wrote that over 100 people surrendered to Border Patrol agents near Sasabe, including more than 90 children. "After crossing the border illegally, they were left in the scorching heat until agents arrived," Modlin said.

On the first day of July, Modlin wrote that 95 people surrendered to Border Patrol agents after crossing the border in the early morning near San Miguel, nearly all of them unaccompanied children.

The Administration for Children and Families, which manages programs for unaccompanied minors under Health and Human Services, said Thursday that 654 children had been picked up by CBP officials nationwide, and about 1,684 were in CBP custody. Another 14,728 children were in custody with HHS. Over the last 30 days, on average round 460 children have been taken into CBP custody per day, and around 1,043 children were in CBP custody, HHS said.

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CBP

197 people traveling as a group crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday morning, including 147 children traveling without parents or guardians.

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