Hundreds of migrants await processing in open-air sites outside Lukeville

By Alisa Reznick
Published: Wednesday, November 29, 2023 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, November 29, 2023 - 9:47am

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Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
Border Patrol agents load up groups of 13 migrants into vans for processing further down the road.

Hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers are waiting for processing in a remote stretch of desert along the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, marking the latest in a months-long increase of arrivals in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. 

A few miles from the Lukeville Port of Entry on Tuesday morning, a sea of thin silver blankets and discarded clothing stuck to the metal bollards of the Trump administration’s 30-foot border wall — where some 750 people made a double-file line along the road. 

Owen Charles, a volunteer with the advocacy group Human Borders, said some migrants had already been waiting two days there. 

“They said they’re going to try and move them out,” he said. “Most of the people are usually here overnight after they were dropped off.”

Charles and wife Lynne were hauling big buckets full of water, granola bars and handmade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the migrants waiting in the long line, and others who walked along the road to join the area.

He said smugglers guiding the migrants may drop them off anywhere from 3 to 20 miles from where Border Patrol agents have set up remote processing sites. Many have already spent days on the road by the time they reach the site. 

'I’ve had threats and been extorted'

Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
A volunteer with Humane Borders hands out snacks to migrants waiting a few miles from the Lukeville Port of Entry.

Darwin, a 40-year-old father from Ecuador waiting in the lineup with his daughter, said he’d been separated from his wife in Mexico. He gave only his first name because he was worried talking to reporters would affect his processing with Border Patrol. He said he hadn’t been told what would happen next after the lineup, but he wanted the chance to ask for asylum in the U.S.

“I’ve had threats and been extorted [in Ecuador]. It’s not the same country that it was,” he said in Spanish. “We only want the opportunity to show the truth of what happened to us.”

But that lineup is the first step in a much longer journey. From the site along the border wall, migrants loaded into small, white vans to a second location a few miles down the road to line up again, this time in front of canvas tents where Border Patrol agents were taking their passports and other information. 

Tucson Sector Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Justin Delatorre says after that, migrants are taken to CBP facilities in Tucson, Nogales, Yuma or California. But he says the number of arrivals in recent days here in Lukeville has slowed that process down.

“We’re putting considerable amounts of resources and effort into processing people quickly and having them removed from our custody. The sooner that happens, it allows us to bring more people into custody and keep that flow going,” he said. “Unfortunately, not only does it exceed our resources for Border Patrol, but it also exceeds the broader DHS responses here with holding people in detention, with enforcement and removal proceedings during the adjudication process.”

More than 700 people waiting

Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
An Border Patrol agent armed with a pepper ball gun stands in front of a lineup of some 750 migrants waiting for processing.

CBP data shows the Tucson Sector has seen a steady increase in the number of people crossing in between ports of entry over the last several months. Delatorre says that’s especially in Lukeville and another area closer to Tucson called Three Points. 

“We’re at a point over this past weekend where we hit over 2,300 apprehensions a day on average,” Delatorre said. “So, we’ve continued to increase significantly, and it’s caused us to pull in every single member of our workforce and respond to the situation given the urgency of it.”

A 2020 federal court ruling limits the amount of time migrants are allowed to remain in Border Patrol facilities within the Tucson Sector to 48 hours, and requires those facilities to provide necessities like a bed, food and clothing to detainees who stay longer.

Delatorre says migrants are not considered to be in Border Patrol custody until they are brought to an agency facility. Though, throughout the day at the large line-up on Tuesday, some agents shouted commands at the migrants waiting to get back into the line, sit down or put their phones away.

'We need that cry to be heard'

Canvas tents are set up to process migrants presenting to Border Patrol
Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
Canvas tents are set up to process migrants presenting to Border Patrol agents outside the Lukeville Port of Entry.

Several miles down the road, border wall contractors mixed cement and worked on metal to repair bollards that smugglers had sawed off for migrants to pass through. As they did, another group of some 80 people from the Dominican Republic, Guinea and Guatemala appeared on the road and began walking toward the larger lineup. 

By sundown Tuesday, Border Patrol agents walked up and down the rows handing out small boxes of raisins to the more than 700 people still lined up there — including Darwin, the Ecuadorian father. 

He said he knew a lot of people were coming to the border, like him. And he hoped they’d be listened to, once they were processed.

“Yes, we need that cry to be heard, because we come with children, we come with women, so that is what we need,” he said. “What more can we ask of another country, that what our country does not do?”

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Alisa Reznick/KJZZ
Migrants await processing near the Lukeville Port of Entry.