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Border agents seeing large groups of migrants—mostly children—in Arizona

Since the beginning of September, Border Patrol agents have encountered at least 432 people traveling in four large groups southwest of Tucson.

The groups were largely children traveling without parents or guardians, who told agents they walked for hours in the desert before crossing into the U.S. south of San Miguel, a small village of about 200 people on the Tohono O'odham Nation about 62 southwest of Tucson.

Earlier this year, agents encountered several large groups in the same area, indicating a continued influx of people, largely Central Americans and Mexicans, who are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum in the U.S.

On Friday, Sabri Y. Dikman, the acting chief of the Tucson Sector, said that agents encountered a group of 102 people just north of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Miguel. Dikman wrote that more than 50 of those people were unaccompanied minors, traveling without parents or guardians.

Since October, Tucson Sector agents have encountered people 173,476 times, and of those encounters nearly 84 percent were single adults, who were immediately expelled by agents under Title 42—a CDC order that allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to rapidly deport those who crossed into the U.S. if they had traveled through a country with COVID-19 infections.

Of the single adults, nearly 69 percent were from Mexico.

Among those encountered by Tucson Sector agents were16,860 children traveling without parents or guardians, and 11,096 people traveling as families. Many people have attempted to cross more than once this year, and CBP officials said 34 percent of encounters in June were people who had at least one prior encounter over the last 12 months.

On Thursday, a federal judge blocked the Biden administration from continuing to use Title 42 to expel families, nearly a year after blocking the Trump administration from doing the same to unaccompanied children. In a three-page order, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan granted a preliminary injunction blocking the further implementation of Title 42, but created a 14-day pause before his order is implemented.

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The Biden administration immediately appealed Sullivan's order, furthering a court battle between the Biden administration and immigration advocates and civil rights groups over the policy.

Dikman wrote on Wednesday that agents near San Miguel encountered 127 migrants near San Miguel, including 92 unaccompanied children. Dikman said that 82 of the children were from Guatemala, and the other migrants were from Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua.

At the beginning of the month, on Sept. 5, agents found a group of 93, including 83 unaccompanied children. Dikman said that 70 of the children were between 15 and 17.

Two days earlier, on Sept. 3, 110 people including 90 migrant children were found in the desert. "Smugglers continue to drop off vulnerable populations in extremely remote areas of the desert," Dikman said.

People are dropped off far from the border and must walk hours to reach the San Miguel gate, an unofficial crossing at the end of Indian Route 19, just past the village of San Miguel on the Tohono O'odham Nation. While the Trump administration pushed hard to install hundreds of miles of 18 to 30 foot border wall along Arizona's boundary with Mexico, much of the Nation's border is marked only with anti-vehicle barriers—which includes metal "bollards" filled with concrete that are about four-to-five feet high.

Border Patrol Agent Alan Regalado, a spokesman for the Tucson Sector, said that agents have found several groups in the area for the last couple of months. People are crossing the border at San Miguel, and near Sasabe, Arizona where there are several large gaps in the wall.

"They're not just dropped off there," he said, rather "they walk long distances to the gate and cross." He added that children and adults reach the U.S. side "dehydrated and malnourished" from the journey. Agents are working to manage the humanitarian needs, along with border security, he said. And, the increasing number of groups strains the sector's resources because it can take hours to transport people from the desert.

"It's a lengthy process, and we're doing the best we can, to get them out of the elements as quickly as possible," Regalado said.

Driven by multiple attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, the overall number of "encounters" tracked by U.S. Customs and Border Protection has risen to more than 1.5 million this fiscal year, even as the number of individual people crossing this year declined from 2019.

Many people have attempted to cross more than once this year, and CBP officials said that 25 percent of encounters in August were people who had at least one prior encounter over the last 12 months. This is down from June when around 34 percent of encounters were with someone had run into agents during the previous fiscal year.

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Figures from CBP showed that encounters peaked in July, and fell two percent in August. 

And the number of unaccompanied children decreased one percent along the U.S.-Mexico border, declining from 18,958 encounters to 18,847. CBP said that the average number of unaccompanied children in CBP custody was 1,435 per day, a slight decline from July.

Officials with Health and Human Services said Friday that across the border, 395 children were in CBP custody, and that HHS had 13,109 kids in shelters nationwide. On April 28, the agency had a peak of 22,538 children in custody. 

"The men and women at CBP continue to step up to meet the demands of high numbers of encounters at our southern border. CBP recorded 2 percent fewer encounters in August than July. The vast majority of single adults encountered in August, along with a substantial share of families, continued to be expelled under the CDC's Title 42 authority,"  said Troy Miller, the acting commissioner of CBP.

While President Joe Biden has nominated Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to the top job at CBP, his nomination has been held up for months by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said he is withholding Magnus' nomination because CBP has "failed to answer basic questions" about how federal officers — including members of the U.S. Border Patrol's special operations group BORTAC — operated during unrest in Portland, Ore., in July 2020.

With Magnus' nomination delayed since April, Miller remains the acting commissioner, a post he has held since January 20 when the Biden administration began.

Smugglers, Regalado said, are using the groups as cover to smuggle drugs, or to allow other groups of single adults to slip across the border. While the groups of people immediately flag down agents, small groups of single adults—often wearing camouflage clothing—attempt to evade agents. 

"There's not a set time of day," he said. Instead, groups come "whenever it feels that its convenient" for smugglers," he said. "That ties up our manpower, and ties up our resources. they're obviously going to take advantage of that."

He said that the agency hasn't pulled agents from other stations, and has been able to manage the groups with agents from the Three Points station.

"It makes it tougher for us, it's a challenge for us,  and we've got to step up," Regalado said. "As we dealt with humanitarian challenges, we've still got to work to secure the border."

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CBP

An image shared by Tucson Sector's acting chief of a group of 127 migrants encountered by agents on Wednesday. Of those, 82 were children traveling with parents or guardians.

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