TUCSON — Department of Homeland Security officials who are concerned about the rising number of migrant families crossing from Mexico into the Arizona desert are preparing to bus them more than 300 miles east into Texas so that they can deposit them in Mexico instead of releasing them in the United States, according to two Trump administration officials.
Homeland Security officials plan to announce as soon as Friday that they will expand the “Migrant Protection Protocols” program to the Tucson region, one of the last major areas on the border that has not been diverting asylum seekers to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings.
Officials estimate DHS will send at least one busload each day from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Tucson sector to the Texas border city of El Paso, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal plans. Migrants will have interviews to determine if they would be at risk in Mexico, and if not, will be sent to Ciudad Juárez to await their U.S. immigration court hearings.
The plan follows weeks of brainstorming to fix a weak spot that emerged in the Trump administration's border crackdown after officials rolled out MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” CBP’s Tucson sector, which covers a swath of forbidding desert and cactus forests that encompasses most of Arizona’s southern border, was not included in the initial rollout of the policy. Officials began the program in January but substantially expanded it after a federal appeals court ruling allowed it to move forward in May. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon on the broader legality of the program.
CBP declined to comment on the expansion and DHS did not respond to a request for comment.
Federal officials have credited MPP and increased enforcement in Mexico with a dramatic plunge in border apprehensions in recent months. In September, officials said border crossings had fallen so much that it allowed them to “effectively end” the practice of releasing migrants into the United States to await court hearings. The practice frustrated President Trump because migrants who were allowed to stay in the United States rarely are deported, even if they lost their bids to stay in the country.
But Border Patrol officials quietly continued releasing border crossers into the Tucson sector, and smugglers caught on, U.S. officials said. As family apprehensions plunged elsewhere, they rose more than 33 percent from May to October in the Tucson sector, from 1,700 to nearly 2,400. The Wall Street Journal first reported the releases earlier this month.
Federal officials said Tucson lagged behind in the MPP program, mainly because it had received far fewer families crossing the border and was a less urgent target. Family arrivals in Tucson remain far lower than the tens of thousands that poured into other parts of the border earlier this year, particularly in El Paso.
But Tucson’s crossings in October surpassed those in El Paso, which counted 2,100.
More than 200 people — including one large group of 129 people — streamed into remote Sasabe, Ariz., in the Tucson sector, in a span of five hours on Saturday night. Babies swaddled in scarves cuddled against their mothers, according to images CBP released.
The migrants were from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The oldest was 56. The youngest was six months old.
The influx demonstrates the ability of smuggling networks to identify holes on the border, officials said. Nearly 1 million migrants were taken into custody along the border during the most recent fiscal year, including a record number of migrant families and unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America.
Officials said adults traveled with children because they were able to quickly bypass immigration custody and were released to await court hearings.
Advocates for immigrants say migrants’ willingness to trek to the Arizona desert is a sign of their desperation to escape their homelands and because they fear waiting in Mexico’s high-crime border cities for an asylum hearing.
Speaking at a gathering of faith leaders Thursday in Tucson, the Rev. Rodger Babnew said some migrants have come from Matamoros and Ciudad Juárez after learning that they could enter the United States via the Tucson sector. He said criminal cartels have begun shaking down migrants for money along the route.
“They come because they know they will be returned to Mexico,” said Babnew, an Episcopal minister with a nonprofit organization called “Cruzando Fronteras,” or “Crossing Borders,” which shelters and provides medical care to migrants on both sides of the border. “People are trying to get to their families before the holidays.”
Pastor Mateo Chavez, who leads a Lutheran church in Tucson, said a Venezuelan man who came to Cruzando Fronteras’ shelter in Nogales, Mexico, told him he had been waiting on the Mexico side of the Matamoros port of entry.
“But he didn’t like what he saw,” Chavez said.
The large shelters in Nogales house hundreds of people who are in the Trump administration’s “metering” program, meaning they sought asylum at a port of entry and are waiting in line to be allowed to enter legally.
Federal officials have credited the MPP program and increased enforcement in Mexico for an 88 percent drop in family crossings, from 84,486 in May to 9,733 in October.
The Border Patrol’s Yuma sector, in western Arizona, implemented the MPP program in April and has seen the number of family members plunge from nearly 11,000 in May to 400 in October.
Yuma, like Tucson, also is unable to send migrants directly across the border via the MPP program because the government of Mexico will not accept them there. Instead, officials are taking migrants west to Calexico, Calif., and sending them to Mexico from there.
More than 4,800 migrants have been sent from Yuma into Mexico since the program began in April, according to Yuma’s deputy chief patrol agent, Carl Landrum.
Miroff and Sacchetti reported from Washington.
Read related Tribune coverage