Ever since he was a boy in the border city of Nogales, Ariz., Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway says people have been crossing over into America looking for a better life. Only recently, he says, has this become red meat for national politicians.
“Caravans staging in Mexico, they’re heading this way and it’s gonna be a mass invasion,” he says, chuckling. “It’s never materialized the way they describe it.”
On a recent afternoon, it was quiet in the high desert along the US-Mexico border several miles east of town. It’s usually this way, Hathaway says.
“There you go, that’s Mexico right there,” he says, getting out of his SUV along a dirt road.
Hathaway is a former former DEA agent in Nogales and in South America. But he dresses more like the old west: cowboy hat, suspenders, key chain dangling off his belt. A hundred feet or so to his left, he points to a section of newer border fence, with its coils of razor wire dangling off the American side. Construction stopped when Donald Trump left office.
A few construction rigs and some fencing lie on the other side of the road near the dried Santa Cruz River, where some of the first Spanish explorers entered what is today the U.S. in the 16th Century. It was long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the sheriff likes to note.
“It’s very peaceful right where we’re standing here right by the border where you can just walk right through and be in Mexico,” he says.
Or crouch under some short vehicle barrier fencing and walk right into the U.S. People are continuing to do that in places like this, even despite a recent federal judge’s ruling allowing the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42 to stay in place.
President Trump used that order to block most migration from Mexico. Under Title 42, most Mexicans and Central Americans who are caught are being sent back immediately. But there appear to be plenty of exceptions.
This Tucson shelter is still seeing record numbers
People seeking asylum are still crossing and at least one shelter for them in Arizona is seeing record numbers. Seventy miles to the north of Nogales, the Casa Alitas Welcome Center in Tucson is taking in 375 people in a day, just a few days after the judge kept the closures in place at official southern ports of entry.
Many unloading from busses in the hot sun look exhausted. They’re carrying the few items they could take in plastic bags given to them in detention. A baby sleeps on one woman’s shoulder as she gets ready to take a Covid test. The shelter’s director, Teresa Cavendish, says this is likely the first time the migrants have felt safe in ages.
“Something caused them to leave their homes, whatever that something was was traumatic and dangerous to them,” she says. “And then they’ve spent time on the US-Mexico border, a very unsafe space to be in.”
Shelter staff says what’s being left out of the bitter partisan immigration battles in Congress is the fact that so many people are fleeing dangerous situations right now, as violence and global instability has risen, especially in Latin America during the pandemic.
Cavendish and other aid workers in Tucson are preparing for the likelihood of handling upwards of a thousand people a day very soon.
“We are continuing to move forward,” she says. “This pause in Title 42 we believe is just that, a pause.”
Most of the people arriving here now are from countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, or even farther afield like the Middle East. Immigration authorities cannot easily return them to their home countries or to Mexico, so they’re being allowed into the country for now as their asylum claims are processed.
That can take years.
One Colombian family is hoping to get to Atlanta
Colombian Wilmar Romero has been staying at Casa Alitas with his wife and two young children for two weeks. Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, Romero says he had to leave Bogota because an armed gang made a threat to his family.
They first flew to Mexico City, then traveled by bus for three days to Mexicali. Soon after, they crossed at a known gap in the border fence near Yuma, Arizona.
Romero says he’s grateful to be in a safe place and shelter staff has been helping him book plane tickets to Atlanta, where he has a friend and hopes to find work.
His story is typical, according to aid workers here. Once he and his family crossed near Yuma, they simply waited to surrender at a certain place that the U.S. Border Patrol tends to pick migrants up at and detain them. He and his family were eventually brought to this shelter more than three hours away. They hadn’t heard about Casa Alitas, nor did they even know for sure where in Arizona they were. They were just desperate to flee to safety, according to Romero.
A lot of the federal funding supporting aid is set to run out
A good deal of the funding to support the growing humanitarian need in cities near the border like Tucson is coming from the federal government. Much of it is set to run out by the end of the month, warns Tucson Mayor Regina Romero.
“I’m concerned that Congress will not allocate funding for a mess in terms of a broken immigration system that they refuse to fix,” Romero says.
During the Trump administration, the Border Patrol was criticized for dropping off asylum seekers in Tucson’s parks or its Greyhound bus station with no plan or support network available to them. The “rural releases” continued some during the Biden administration, putting a strain on more rural towns nearby that lacked any formal aid infrastructure.
“We will do everything we possibly can to avoid street releases, our whole community will,” says Cavendish. “But there’s going to come a time that we have so many people in shelter with us that the unavoidable is unavoidable.”
There are plenty of critics of Title 42 along this stretch of the border, particularly in more progressive leaning cities like Tucson. Romero, the city’s first Latina and first female mayor, says it’s ironic that Republicans sued to keep a public health order in place.
“For example, Attorney General Brnovich here of Arizona was fighting cities like Tucson when we were instituting public health measures to protect our communities from Covid-19,” Romero says.
The Attorney General declined an interview request, but in a statement called the judge’s ruling keeping Title 42 in place a win.
A border sheriff calls Title 42 ‘dishonest’
Back in Nogales, Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway says he’s mostly given up on federal leaders, after two decades of an impasse on immigration reform. He’s also concerned that just continually using taxpayer money to build up more humanitarian aid infrastructure in cities like Tucson will only serve as an incentive for more illegal crossings.
He recently penned an editorial in Arizona’s largest newspaper calling for Title 42 to be lifted, saying it’s dishonest to be using a public health order to restrict migration, adding that it’s just growing the bottleneck of asylum cases at the border.
“If someone at the cabinet level in the Biden administration heard this, that’s what I would say, get the deciding officials that make these decisions right at the border,” the sheriff says. “Have a line where they immediately decide the cases.”
The Biden administration has just launched a small program to start doing that but it may not survive a court challenge.