150 people gathered at the Canelo Cowboy Church to listen to a presentation about the current state of the border in Eastern Santa Cruz County. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Approximately 150 people attended a community meeting held at the Canelo Cowboy Church on March 11. The meeting was a response to concerns raised by reports that the Border Patrol Station was releasing undocumented migrants in Sonoita.

Community Liaison Officer Justin Bartine, from the Sonoita Border Patrol Station, opened his remarks by saying he was unable to “put out an official statement.” He did say that they were expecting to see a “big increase” in asylum-seeking immigrants along the southern border of the U.S. 

He did not anticipate a large number of asylum seekers to come through the Sonoita area. Typically, he said, they enter where there are roads closer to the border, so that they can surrender themselves to authorities and claim asylum status, rather than have to cross open country. In 2018-9, when there was an influx of asylum seekers, the Sonoita Station housed a number of them, but these were overflow primarily from the Three Points Station, he explained. 

Another difference between those years and this year is that the Border Patrol no longer houses migrants in detention centers for more than 72 hours. It is now a violation of the law, he said, and it is not the mission of the Border Patrol to be a detention facility.

According to a statement provided to the PRT by Robert Bushell, Tucson sector Special Operations Supervisor, “CBP has seen a steady increase in border encounters since April 2020, which, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, has caused some facilities to reach maximum safe holding capacity. Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing. As the Administration reviews the current immigration process, balancing it against the ongoing pandemic, we will continue to use all current authorities to avoid keeping individuals in a congregate setting for any length of time.”

Bartine addressed the issue of transporting asylum seekers to Nogales and Tucson shelters. Presently, asylum seekers are being transported to shelters in Border Patrol trucks. If the number of asylum seekers grows, the station hopes to enlist volunteer groups to transport people. Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway, who also spoke at the meeting, suggested that some of the private vans that run from Nogales to Tucson could be routed up SR 82 to pick people up at the Sonoita Station.

Asylum seekers are screened for criminal records and for COVID symptoms before being released, according to Bartine. They are not released at night. They are allowed to make a phone call and are given masks as well as paperwork telling them when to appear for a hearing. The average stay for an asylum seeker at a local shelter is two or three days before they move out of the area. 

When asked if he anticipated large numbers of migrants coming into our area, Sheriff Hathaway said “So far, there are not big waves of people and no big groups in Nogales [Sonora]. There are no mass buildups.” 

“The United States is continuing to strictly enforce our existing immigration laws and border security measures,” according to a CBP Senior Official quoted in Tucson.com. “Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the border is not open, and the vast majority of people are being returned.”

The number of people attempting to cross the border has jumped significantly in the Tucson sector, which reported apprehending 4759 unaccompanied minors, (an increase of 40% over last year), 2644 family units, (a decrease of 70% over last year) and 52,795 single adults (an increase of 206% over last year). Bartine explained that the station still deports people entering the country, other than asylum seekers. He said that, on average, those detained in Sonoita are back in Mexico two hours after they are brought to the station. 

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of drug and human smugglers coming through Sonoita. Bartine explained that the checkpoint on SR 83, north of Sonoita, has been moved to SR 82 in front of the Sonoita Station to monitor traffic heading east, as the checkpoint in Cochise County has been dismantled to free up agents to work along the border. The Sonoita checkpoint is now the furthest east checkpoint in the Tucson sector, he said. He also stated that Border Patrol is at present severely undermanned.

“We have more traffic than we have manpower,” he said. 

Bartine reported that local agents have apprehended “several vehicle loads” of drug and human smugglers at the checkpoint. He noted that the majority of the drivers of these loads are U.S. citizens. He pointed out that a photo of two men in front of a local store that was circulated on Facebook was not of two migrants released from the station but was a photo of two U.S. citizens whose cases had been declined by federal prosecutors at the Tucson AUSA office. 

Bartine explained that increased Border Patrol related traffic along Lower Elgin Rd. is a result of smugglers avoiding the new checkpoint. Two recent incidents on that road. have unsettled residents. On January 25, a truck crashed into the side of the bridge leading to Upper Elgin Rd. and on Feb. 12, two people traveling in a truck trying to evade Border Patrol were injured. 

The meeting concluded with Nick Robbs, of Sonoita, reading a letter written by local community church leaders addressed to elected officials asking that migrants not be released into the Sonoita community. Attendees were encouraged to sign the letter and were given a list of elected officials to contact.