163 border-crossers detained by Border Patrol in often deadly Az desert
3rd large group found in Arizona desert since July
From a lonely stretch of Puerto Blanco Drive desert on Organ Pipe National Monument, the U.S.-Mexico border is marked by a series of metal "bollards" set into the desert sands with concrete. Beyond the border, a few semi-tractor trailers rumble along Mexico's Highway 2, the country's northern-most highway, past a deserted and crumbling gas station.
It's here, with the wide stretch of desert flats known as the La Abra Plain, hemmed in by rugged mountains on three sides, that U.S. Border Patrol agents continue to apprehend large groups of immigrants, including families traveling with small children, including a four-year-old and a three-month-old infant.
Since July, U.S. officials have intercepted 386 people traveling in three separate groups through the remote desert of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the 330,000-acre wildlife refuge that surrounds Lukeville and State Route 85, about 110 miles southwest of Tucson.
The area is mostly remote wilderness, and includes Mexico's own El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, with an additional 666,000-acres of wilderness that butts up against the Arizona-Mexico border and goes south to the Gulf of California.
On Saturday, officials intercepted the largest group yet, encountering a group of 163 people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Among the group were both adults and children, some as young as 4 months, said a spokesman with Tucson Sector Border Patrol in a news release.
"It's lonely country here," said Chris Sullivan, a spokesman from Tucson Sector Border Patrol, who maneuvered one of the agency's marked Chevy Tahoes into the back country during a weekend ride-along with a reporter. Among Sullivan's skills as an agent is his EMT certification, which means along with his gear bouncing in the back seat is an khaki green medical bag stuffed with equipment, including glucose and IV bags, designed help those who have endured the desert's pounding heat.
Sullivan worries about the vehicle's tires, which haven't been replaced with the agency's beefier tires, and decides not to climb up a hill, where the fence runs like a rusty spine up along one hill. Instead, he works along Puerto Blanco and then Pozo Nuevo, two of the many rickety dirt roads that the agency regularly uses to patrol the area.
"Transnational criminals—the cartels—are using people," said Sullivan. "They're just milking the situation, trying to get as much as they can and they're putting people out here in the desert, where they're at risk."
"The promise people they can cross, and get them here, inducing them to cross," Sullivan said. "And, we cannot stress this enough, this isn't a place people can cross easily. They're putting their lives at risk."
Sullivan has a young child at home. "I just can't imagine trying to bring a toddler out here, just with all that they need, with how vulnerable they are," he said.
Sullivan pointing out one of the agency's 34 emergency beacons, part of the Tucson Sector's "Border Safety Initiative," a long-term project that includes rescue beacons that can be activated with a push of a button and in some cases included a phone that connects the agency's dispatchers. "They can hit this button, and an agent will come out to get them," Sullivan notes.
When asked what this means for people who have already struggled to get into the United States, and face deportation back to the same violent and dangerous country they've fled, Sullivan said, "Sure, but that's not what they're thinking about. They're thinking about whether they'll be alive or not."
Since late July, the agency has found three large groups, representing what may be a shift in migration patterns as people try to push across the lonely desert here in Organ Pipe.
The large groups have arrived following the wide-ranging public outcry over the Trump administration's plan to separate families by pursuing a "zero tolerance" policy that sought to prosecute parents while their children were handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and then Health and Human Services.
In an analysis from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse-university based database of federal records, it appears that federal officials may have sought to target adults crossing the border with children. Using figures from the U.S. courts from April to May 2018, TRAC shows CBP personnel only sought prosecution for less than "one out of three adults" and that adults crossing with children may be overrepresented among those prosecuted in those two months.
During those two months, 24,465 adults were prosecuted, while around 9,216 adults with children were prosecuted, resulting in criminal prosecutions
"However, since less than a third of adults apprehended illegally crossing the border were actually referred for prosecution, the stated justification does not explain why this administration chose to prosecute parents with children over prosecuting adults without children who were also apprehended in even larger numbers," wrote analysts with TRAC.
While there can be water in the Quitobaquito Springs just to the north, beyond this point, the desert gets harsher and deadlier, where dozens of people have died either trying to work their way through the refuge, or have tried to cross by keeping the imposing Growler Mountains on either side.
And, even if people somehow successfully walk through the refugee, they still have to contend with the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refugee and then the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, all lonely undeveloped areas of harsh desert, where water and a chance of rescue is unlikely.
The area around Lukeville remains a deadly corridor for immigrants attempting to cross Arizona's deserts. In the area that surrounds the wildlife refuge, the remains of 17 people have been found so far in 2018. Since 2001, the bodies of 212 people have been discovered by officials and humanitarian groups.
Just a few weeks earlier, on Aug. 17, Ajo station agents found a group of 128 people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico, which also included young children.
And, in July 28, Ajo Station agents found a group of 95 people after a National Park Service ranger informed them there was a "large group" of people approximately 8 miles west of the port of entry.
Agents found 95 people traveling as a group, which "consisted of multiple families," the spokesman said, including a three-month-old infant, as well as someone aged 60. Among them were foreign nationals from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the spokesman said.
Agents medically evaluated the immigrants, and in each case determined they were in good health, agents have said.
In each case, while there are families in the groups, agents have also identified people who were "previously removed" from the United States, but remained unclear on whether they were removed because of immigration-related issues, or were deported for other reasons.
Among the southwest border sectors, Tucson and Yuma Sectors have the largest increases in what the agency calls "family units" from 2017 to 2018. In Tucson, this figure has risen from 1,755 to nearly 3,431 this year. In the adjacent Yuma Sector the same figure has jumped even higher to 127 percent.
However, this pales in comparison to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas where agents more than 47,000 people this year.