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Some lawmakers want a clampdown on asylum. AZ officials and aid workers already face challenges

Washington narrowly avoided a government shutdown this month. But lawmakers are still mulling a potential deal that would green-light military aid for Ukraine in exchange for crackdowns on asylum at the border. In the meantime, along remote stretches of the Arizona border, officials say that system is overwhelmed.

Nestled into the heart of the rugged Altar Valley a little more than an hour south of Tucson, Sasabe is a tiny border community encircled by wild desert grasslands and steep mountain ranges.

It’s home to a bright yellow country store, an elementary school, and a tiny border crossing that leads to Sasabe, Sonora. Only a few dozen people live here on the Arizona side. 

But it’s been at the epicenter of a lot of different border eras over the years.

Gail Kocourek is an aid worker with Salvavision and the Tucson Samaritans — both of which provide water and other aid along the Arizona border and across the border. 

“The cartels got really strong during Trump because of a revolving door policy they had, where people were constantly picked up and released back to Mexico, picked and released back to Mexico, just round and round and round,” she said. 

That revolving door is Title 42. The public health protocol was enacted by the Trump administration in 2020 and allowed border officers to turn migrants they apprehended back to Mexico within a few hours — without giving them a chance to ask for asylum. It caused the number of repeat crossings to skyrocket border-wide. 

It also meant hundreds of people a week were being dropped off just across the border here in Sasabe, Sonora — where aid and public transportation to larger cities is scant. 

Meanwhile, on the Arizona side, contractors were cutting into mountain ranges to erect the former president’s 30-foot steel bollard wall. That wall now extends for more than two dozen miles east and west of the town.

Kocourek says aid workers are used to running into migrants here, along with construction workers, Border Patrol and even masked members of militia groups. But now?

“Oh, so many more asylum seekers, well, we used to get the asylum seekers, but they would be so much closer to Sasabe,” she said. 

That isn’t the case today. 

A steep, bumpy road cut by contractors along the new wall snakes through some 20 miles of rolling hills and sharp ridges just east of the port of entry. Asylum seekers have been arriving at gaps in the barrier here, often miles from the town and the Border Patrol’s small Sasabe station. 

Aid volunteers like Paige Corich-Kleim, with the group No More Deaths, have stepped in to help. She’s driving an old pick up truck into a makeshift camp set up by No More Deaths volunteers along the road, east of Sasabe. Asylum seekers find temporary shelter here as they wait for Border Patrol. 

“So right over here is kind of the main kitchen space, and firewood, and some other tarp structures and tents that people can kind of take shelter in, they’re not amazing, but it’s better than not having anything,” she said. 

It’s a sunny, warm morning when we visit, and the camp is empty. But there are remnants of past visitors everywhere. Discarded clothes, blankets and empty boxes of energy bars sit underneath tent structures made up of wooden pallets and old billboard fabric. Folding tables hold big tupperware containers of homemade pasta salad brought by aid workers. Along the road, red signs stuck in the dirt have sharpied arrows in the direction of Sasabe and the Border Patrol station.

The camp is meant to be a short respite for asylum seekers walking along the road after being dropped off by smugglers at gaps in the wall or holes that have been cut into it.

Corich-Kleim says hundreds have passed through the camp. They’re sometimes stuck along this stretch in near-freezing tempratures overnight, waiting for Border Patrol agents. 

"This is a place that we’ve often brought people to, if we aren’t able to drive all the way to the forward operating base. So that they have at least some food, some warm gear, and are more likely to be able to present themselves for asylum faster," Corich-Kleim said. 

Like in other stretches of Arizona’s border, most people coming here now aren’t trying to evade the Border Patrol. They’re looking for agents so they can begin the legal process of asking for asylum in the U.S.

Just before Christmas last year, aid workers were assisting some 400 migrants who came through a cut in the fencing about five miles further up the road, in the middle of an intense downpour. Aid workers scrambled to put together temporary shelters along the  wall and called the Border Patrol for help, but were told the road was too washed out to reach the remote site. 

Seeking asylum along the border is a right under U.S. and international law. But it was largely impossible under Title 42. 

The protocol came to an end after more than three years in effect last spring. Asylum seekers who want to ask for protection at a port of entry now must do so through the government app CBP One, which offers up to 1,450 asylum appointments each day at a handful of ports border-wide. 

Stephanie Brewer, Mexico director for the advocacy and research group Washington Office on Latin America, says the limited number has caused long waits at the ports of entry where the program is active. And it’s harder for some nationalities, like Mexicans, to get appointments, even those in immediate danger. As a result, many are seeking out other ways to get in front of border officers.

“Essentially because of choking off access to asylum at ports of entry, and seeking to channel everyone into this app, people end up in the desert, crossing irregularly, when actually they just want to be able to present at a port of entry,” she said. “Current migration is largely humanitarian, it’s violence-fleeing, it’s protection seeking, and it’s no longer the stereotype of migration that some might say our border system was designed to respond to.” 

Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Agent John Modlin says that’s a new dynamic for this part of the border.

“A year ago, if we were talking about the demographic of Tucson, the Tucson Sector, what we were encountering was about 85 percent single adults, now it’s about 50% single adults, 50% families,” he said. 

Agents were encountering an average of 2,000 people a day in this sector late last year, according to agency data. Aid workers here in Sasabe say they are still often helping more than 100 people a day. 

Modlin says agents here are now spending more time processing people for those asylum claims. Some are arriving with urgent medical needs and in groups with young children. 

“More Border Patrol agents will not stop what’s happening right now, we’re not having a difficulty encountering people,” he said. “The difficulty is what’s happening after we’re encountering them. That’s where the system is now overwhelmed.”

Modlin says addressing that requires more staffing all around — like more asylum officers and immigration judges to process protection claims, and more beds for border and immigration officers to house people temporarily. 

The Biden administration has asked Congress to fund additional judges, asylum officers and Border Patrol agents. But some lawmakers are pushing for more enforcement-based measures — like more border wall construction, and  tighter restrictions on asylum for those who pass through more than one country en route to the U.S. 

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick with the American Immigration Council says those proposals are just more the same, failed border policy.

“We’ve built higher walls, we’ve imposed ever-greater barriers, and we’ve demanded Mexico do more and more to stop migrants from getting here. And all of that has had very little impact,” he said. “About the only thing we haven’t tried is actually giving resources to the asylum system.” 

According to a report from the UN’s refugee agency, more than 100 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of conflict, violence and other rights violations by the end of 2022. 

Reichlin-Melnick says there’s no easy answer to solve that crisis. But he says — as history shows — trying to force migration to halt simply doesn’t work.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.Prior to joining KJZZ, she covered border and immigration at Arizona Public Media, where she was awarded a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her coverage of Indigenous-led protests against border wall construction.Reznick started her career working in bilingual newsrooms and as a freelance journalist in Amman, Jordan. Her reporting on migration, refugees and human rights has appeared on PRX’s The World, Al Jazeera and Nova PBS, among others. As a recipient of the International Labour Organization's FAIRWAY Reporting Fellowship, she spent six months reporting on labor migration issues across Arab States.Originally from Flagstaff, she likes climbing, being outdoors and Pluto.