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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

To handle a surge of illegal crossings, border officials stop legal ones

The closed crossing at the Mexican border, in Lukeville, Ariz., Dec. 8, 2023. Some border communities in the U.S. and Mexico are suddenly cut off from each other after legal crossings were cut off to cope with large numbers of migrants coming across.

By Jack Healy and Miriam Jordan

Like many people in the tiny town of Why, Arizona, Stephanie Fierro’s life revolves around the nearby border crossing. She works at a roadside cafe serving enchiladas to American tourists passing through on their way to beach resorts in Mexico. Her husband, a Mexican citizen, lives on the other side.

That link was severed Dec. 1 when United States border officials closed the port of entry in nearby Lukeville to cope with an influx of thousands of migrants who have been camping out in a rugged patch of desert along the border wall. Border officials have said they had to close the port to legal crossings in order to focus all their resources on the surge of unlawful crossings.

It has created a split-screen crisis — a humanitarian emergency at the border, where hundreds of migrants are burning cactuses and trash to keep warm at night, and an economic disaster for people in rural southern Arizona whose lives and livelihoods depend on the now-shuttered border crossing.

“We come and go every day,” said Fierro, 26, who is eight months pregnant with her second child. If the border stays closed, she said, she doubts she will be able to see her husband before her due date. “That’s just wrong.”

Without the traffic from the roughly 3,000 people who cross legally into the United States daily in Lukeville, gas stations, restaurants and travel-insurance agencies farther up the road that cater to passing tourists said their business had dropped by 90%.

Mexican American families who work in Arizona but live just over the border in Sonoyta, Mexico, are scrambling to figure out how to get their children to school, commute to work, or care for parents they can no longer easily visit.

Driving from Arizona to Sonoyta, normally a 40-minute straight shot down Highway 85, now requires a 6-hour trip winding through cartel-controlled sections of Mexico, residents said.

Democratic and Republican leaders in Arizona have blasted the Biden administration’s handling of the border crisis, a rare moment of bipartisan accord in a bitterly divided battleground state where immigration is a top issue for voters.

Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, visited the area Saturday after saying the federal response had created an “unmitigated crisis.”

In a joint letter to the White House, Hobbs and Arizona’s two senators — Mark Kelly, a Democrat, and Kyrsten Sinema, an independent — called the closure an “unacceptable outcome that further destabilizes our border, risks the safety of our communities and damages our economy.”

Hobbs said she would send in National Guard troops if the administration did not redirect federal resources to reopen the Lukeville crossing. Arizona Republicans, who called the closure a consequence of the White House’s failed immigration policies, have criticized Hobbs for not already deploying the Guard.

Illegal immigration has been a reality of life for so long in the desert around Lukeville, a speck of a community consisting of a few duty-free shops and a shuttered motel, that trail signs in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument warn hikers to be aware of smugglers, and residents see green-and-white Border Patrol vans zipping down the roads every day.

But many residents said they had not personally felt any impacts of the migrant crisis overwhelming parts of the border until now.

Several residents in the nearby communities of Ajo and Why said that they felt compassion for the migrants massed along the border wall, but that they were frustrated that the surge in illegal crossings had interrupted their legal journeys back and forth across the border.

“I’m not an anti-immigration guy,” said Lonnie Guthrie, chief of the Ajo Ambulance Services, which has been overwhelmed by calls to transport injured migrants or mothers who give birth in the desert. Guthrie said that he was a lifelong Democrat, but that he was exasperated by the pace of crossings and the border closure.

“I don’t know how anybody can believe this is good for the United States,” he said. “Somebody has to help us out.”

The Tucson sector of the border, a 260-mile stretch that includes Lukeville, has now become the busiest section of the 2,000-mile southern border. Agents there encountered 55,224 migrants in October, the latest month for which data is available, compared with 22,938 in October 2022.

The numbers have risen as smugglers funnel migrants through increasingly isolated and desolate migration corridors, including the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation.

The Biden administration has tried to reduce illegal crossings by setting up an orderly process for asylum-seekers to secure an appointment through an app called CBP One. It has also tried quickly expelling migrants, criminally charging people for repeated illegal entries and imposing stricter standards for asylum claims.

But migrants who gathered beside the border wall this week, waiting to be collected by Border Patrol agents, said they had not been deterred by the threat of violence along the journey to the United States, nor by deportation once they arrived. Some had been told, falsely, by smugglers or other migrants that they would be allowed to stay permanently in the United States once they made it across the border and surrendered.

Guido Sarango, 42, and his 21-year-old son, Neyder, sat huddled against the border wall one chilly morning this week, their second day sitting in long lines and waiting for border agents to collect them.

The pair had made their way to the border from their home country of Ecuador.

Volunteer groups on either side of the wall had passed out tortillas and bananas to eat, but still, the father and son were hungry, had not showered in days, and had to relieve themselves in public with the hundreds of other men surrounding them. Yet, Sarango said, it was worth it.

“Everything going on here is better than what’s happening in my country,” he said.

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