As part of Arizona 360's continuing coverage of the border, this week we looked at factors that drive the steady rise of asylum seekers and the ripple effect felt at ports of entry across the state. According to Customs and Border Protection, more than 1,000 officers and support staff work at ports of entry at the border and in airports. The Tucson Field Office for Customs currently has nearly 200 vacancies, and in recent months officers have been called upon to help Border Patrol process large groups of migrants requesting asylum.
"It is a challenge, but right now it's something we have to do. There is honestly a crisis when you look at the volume, the number of people that are being detained right now in the Rio Grande Valley and the El Paso Sector," Director of Field Operations Guadalupe Ramirez said.
Ramirez acknowledged shortages with staffing but added that hiring has improved in recent years. "Even though we are at a deficit, it's less of a deficit than it was a couple years ago," Ramirez said. "We have had several of our officers through the academy, through our training, and they're hitting the line a few at a time every week. And it is keeping us above water."
Arizona 360 toured areas of the Mariposa Port of Entry and the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales. At the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, officers continue to process migrants seeking asylum. Nogales Port Director Mike Humphries discussed how that has put a strain on resources.
"Our detention areas were built several years ago and they were designed for short-term detention, and mostly what we got back then were adult males that were in our custody for no more than a few hours," Humphries said. He believes officers have been unfairly portrayed as being unsympathetic to the asylum-seeking families they now regularly encounter.
"We're caring for their nourishment. We're caring for their medical needs. We're getting them processed as expeditiously as possible and then we're getting them on to ICE. We're very compassionate, we're very caring," Humphries said.
The number of families apprehended along the Southwest border is up 400 percent over Customs and Border Protection's last fiscal year. Elizabeth Oglesby researches human rights and Central America at the University of Arizona Center for Latin American Studies. She explained how border security policies have contributed to the influx in migration, which she does not believe reflects a crisis.
"We've had high numbers of Central Americans coming to the United States for decades — in the 1980s during the civil wars in Central America where people were fleeing massacres and oppression, but also in the 1990s and the early 2000s where people came mostly for economic reasons. We had very high numbers of Central Americans, so Central Americans have been in this country for decades. In the 1990s we didn't call it a crisis," Oglesby said.
She described a shift in the characteristics of this current migration that includes mostly women and children, whereas in the past it was mostly single adults who would come to the U.S. to work and later return to their countries of origin. Oglesby said increased border enforcement has made it more difficult for people to cross back and forth like they did before.
"It's more expensive to make the journey, it's riskier to make the journey. So, in many ways what we're seeing now is efforts in family reunification," Oglesby said. "It is in some sense not the border breaking, but this is the result of border enforcement. This is the border working."
Arizona's southern border with Mexico falls into Sinaloa Cartel territory. Cartels control the routes used by migrants to reach the U.S. and they're profiting off the surge. Tony Coulson retired as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Tucson and now consults law enforcement agencies about the border. He explained when cartels added human smuggling to their business model.
"Prior to the mid-200s the human trafficking organizations along the border were pretty independent of the drug trafficking organizations. That paradigm changed when Chapo took control of this border area," Coulson said. According to Coulson, the Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán co-opted human trafficking along the border to ensure it did not interfere with drug smuggling missions.
"Instead of having a drug smuggling group along the border and a human trafficking group along the border running into each other and bringing Border Patrol's focus into that area, they used the human trafficking as a diversion to the drug trafficking operation," Coulson said.
When drugs make it across the border, local law enforcement agencies have a bigger role to play in stopping them from hitting the streets. Federal grant programs like Operation Stonegarden compensate state and local agencies for work done in cooperation with Border Patrol. Recently the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to accept the funding again. Supervisor Sharon Bronson delivered the swing vote in favor of Stonegarden. She discussed her support with Lorraine Rivera.
"Stonegarden funding was going to stay here whether we took it or not. It would end up going to the other jurisdictions," Bronson said. She also supports redirecting some of the funding to non-governmental organizations that provide humanitarian aid to migrants just released from federal custody. Bronson also praised Sheriff Mark Napier for agreeing to certain terms about how he will apply the grant within his department.
"Humane Borders has water stations out in the desert and they have been vandalized. The sheriff has agreed to work very closely with Humane Borders to assure that we stop that," Bronson said.