TUCSON, Ariz. — U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector Chief Manuel Padilla recently hiked out to a remote spot in the Arizona desert southwest of Tucson. Overall, fewer migrants have been crossing here.
But he’s worried about a recent trend.
“We are seeing women and children that are being crossed across the border in these desolate areas, like the one we are walking in, and then being abandoned,” Padilla said.
The families are coming from Central America, many from Guatemala. What’s curious is some smugglers aren’t bothering to get their clients to their final destination in the U.S. Instead, they are just bringing them across the border so they can be caught by federal agents.
Padilla is worried about the safety of these kids, especially in the summer.
“Once they start feeling the dehydration, their health quickly degrades,” Padilla said.
In recent months there’s been a notable uptick in Central American families and unaccompanied children coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. The largest share of migrants are coming through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. For the first time in 16 years, that sector has surpassed Border Patrol’s Tucson sector as the busiest location for apprehending border crossers.
Between last October and the end of April, Border Patrol agents made more than 50,000 child apprehensions border-wide. That’s more than the entire previous fiscal year.
On a recent night, Tucson’s Greyhound bus station was full of migrant families who federal agents had processed and dropped off hours before.
Some had been caught in South Texas but were flown to Arizona, where agents are helping to offset some of the heavy workload in Texas. Other migrants in the bus station had been apprehended while coming through Arizona.
Among them was a 7-year-old with a ponytail named Esmeralda.
She, her mother and five siblings came from Guatemala and climbed over the border fence in Arizona.
Esmeralda described the fence in Spanish as “very tall” and said she had to climb a ladder and then rappel down.
Esmeralda and three of her siblings were actually born here and are U.S. citizens. The family returned to Guatemala three years ago but decided to leave again because there was nowhere for Esmeralda and her siblings to go to school.
Esmeralda’s mother and two of her sisters don’t have papers. So the whole family came over the border fence.
When Esmeralda came down the fence, Border Patrol was already there waiting.
In fact, her mother Carmen, who wouldn’t give the family’s last name, said in Spanish the plan was to turn themselves in to federal agents.
Carmen said the word is spreading throughout Guatemala that women with children are being let in to the United States.
She said she heard women with kids who are caught spend a couple nights in jail, and then get to go to their destination in the U.S.
And in a way, that is what's happening.
U.S. policy has moved away from holding migrant families in longer term detention. Instead, women with children are often paroled if they have relatives in the U.S.
Carmen and her family have permission to buy Greyhound bus tickets to her sister’s house east of here.
But there is a big catch. Something the smuggler didn’t mention.
Carmen now faces deportation. She has to report to the closest Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in 15 days.
She insists she’ll follow through in the hopes that she and her daughters can get papers.
But she could be deported. And if that happens, the family will have nowhere to go. Carmen, who describes herself as a single mother, sold her home in Guatemala to pay the smuggler $18,000 to get her family to the border fence.
Across town, Laurie Melrood, a social worker and immigrant rights advocate, offers tea to some women and children migrants at her house. She’s letting the group shower before they board their buses later this evening.
Melrood is part of a network of volunteers who help recently released women and children when they are dropped off at the Greyhound station. The women often show up disoriented, penniless and hungry. The volunteers provide them with food and donated clothing, and lend their cell phones so the women can call relatives who can buy them their bus tickets.
Sometimes the volunteers offer these migrants shelter overnight since the Tucson bus station closes in the middle of the night.
“We try to give them a sense that the United States is welcoming them,” Melrood said.
Melrood said she first began seeing ICE drop off Guatemalan women with children at the bus station about seven months ago. She has hosted dozens at her home in that time, and says their stories are all similar.
It appears that smugglers there have been able to build business by spreading the idea that women with kids will be allowed into the U.S.
“And this is so recent, and it seems so well organized, that it appears to me that the people inviting them know exactly what they need to tell them about how they are going to get the money that these women don’t have, they don’t have any money,” Melrood said. “In that part of Guatemala it seems pretty endemic, that there is almost a movement for these women to get out.”
Melrood and other advocates view these families as refugees deserving of protection. Many of the women migrants say they are fleeing hunger, domestic violence and organized crime.
Not everyone sees it that way. Those who support strict immigration policies say the government shouldn’t be releasing these families from detention, since it incentivizes more migrants to come.