While a line of people waited to cross the border into the United States through the DeConcini Pedestrian Port of Entry on Friday morning, another approximately two dozen individuals were being held in a detention area the size of a large classroom on the second floor.
At one end, solemn-faced women, some wrapped in emergency thermal blankets and one holding a crying baby, sat on benches inside a pair of mesh-walled cells as children kneeled on the floor, using a bench as a table for their breakfast of fruit cups, cereal bars and juice pouches. The door of one of the cells was wide open, as was the door to a smaller interview room, where a woman in her 20s or 30s sat with a yellow blanket draped over her shoulders.
Meanwhile, a teenage boy wearing a tank top and a surgical mask over his nose and mouth was led by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer into a cell at the other end of the long room containing male detainees. Another male adolescent calmly watched it all unfold from his seat in an open-air pen enclosure.
Earlier that day, CBP had allowed about 15 Central American asylum-seekers into the port, said Assistant Port Director Jesus Cruz. But the limited-capacity detention area wasn’t just for them. CBP also needs the space for people it detains for criminal activity.
In response to thousands-strong caravans of migrants making their way through Mexico to the U.S. border, Army troops have been fortifying the local ports of entry with concertina wire and steel container barriers in an effort to compel any who arrive here to seek lawful and orderly entry through the ports’ pedestrian lanes. However, even if large groups of asylum-seekers show up and follow the rules rather than rushing the border, CBP is constrained by factors such as space, fire codes and health concerns to processing them in limited numbers at DeConcini, which has the only processing area among the city’s three ports.
Despite the dramatic deployment of new human and physical resources to deter possible aggressive behavior by caravan members, the only significant change CBP has made in Nogales to deal with a possible surge of orderly asylum-seekers is to stockpile more food appropriate for children, Cruz said.
“We have no other resources other than what we have on hand right now,” he said, adding that CBP will continue to process migrants the same way it always has if the caravan arrives.
A matter of priority
The caravan members have so far focused on Tijuana, just south of San Diego, Calif. and 475 miles west of Nogales, Sonora, as their border destination. The mayor of Tijuana said Friday that 2,750 migrants from the caravan had already arrived in the city, and warned that the number could approach 10,000 from an influx lasting at least six months, The Associated Press reported.
The AP also reported that CBP officers at San Diego’s main border crossing with Tijuana are processing only about 100 asylum claims a day, creating long waits.
Asylum-seeking Central Americans who aren’t part of the current caravans have been a constant presence in Nogales, Sonora since the spring, camping out on the south side of the DeConcini pedestrian lanes as CBP officers process zero to several families per day, as space and resources allow.
When they’re allowed into the port, they don’t even need to say the word “asylum.” As soon as they tell officers that they are afraid to return to their home country, they are documented as an asylum claim, Cruz said. Then they’re sent from secondary inspection to the detention area upstairs.
That detention area is shared among asylum-seekers, smugglers, “imposters” with fraudulent ID and people with outstanding arrest warrants, Cruz said, all of whom are separated by families, gender and criminal record.
The detainees are also separated if they require medical attention, which could consist of holding them in different cells or taking them to the hospital for further treatment.
The CBP guideline for keeping people at the port’s detention area is 72 hours, Cruz explained, but officers are typically able to move them on to their next destination – Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s removal operations, the court system or a swift denial-of-entry return to Mexico – within 16-24 hours.
As CBP officers process asylum-seekers, Cruz noted, they still have other crucial duties to stay on top of.
Last year, he said, Nogales was the nation’s number-two port of entry for opioid seizures, and the interception of opioids continues to be a top priority as the drugs ravage communities across the country. Other priorities include facilitation the lawful entry of travelers and commercial goods.
Preparations to control the possible arrival of unruly caravan members – which, in addition to the Army fortifications, have included training exercises by CBP riot squads – have taken center stage in Nogales in recent days. But processing orderly asylum-seekers is still not a top priority, Cruz insisted, adding that CBP’s mission is to “protect the border” and “stop contraband.”
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Clark.)