Mexicans are not seen at busy crossings

By ELLIOT SPAGAT, Associated Press

YUMA, Ariz. (AP) — As hundreds of migrants line up along an Arizona border wall around 4 a.m., officers try to separate them into groups by nationality.

“Someone from Russia or Bangladesh?” I need someone else from Russia here,” an agent shouts, then says calmly, almost to himself, “They’re Romanians.

It’s a routine task for Border Patrol in the wee hours of the morning in this flat stretch of desert where the wall ends. Migrants from at least 115 countries were arrested here last year, but that’s perhaps less striking than what’s missing: Mexicans are virtually absent.

Instead, families from Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, India and dozens of other countries arrive in Yuma after wading knee-deep in the Colorado River. Their presence reflects how a pandemic-era ruler still shapes the journeys of many migrants, even though much of the United States has given up on COVID-19.

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The demographic shift marks a dramatic change from the recent past, when migrants came mainly from Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. That’s especially clear at some of the busiest crossings, like Yuma and Eagle Pass, Texas, near where several people have died in recent days trying to cross the Rio Grande.

Mexicans are still crossing elsewhere but often try to evade capture as they are subject to deportation under a pandemic rule that denies them the chance to seek asylum.

Mexicans still make up 7 out of 10 encounters in the Border Patrol sector of Tucson, Arizona, where smugglers order them to walk at night with black-painted water jugs, camouflaged backpacks and low-soled boots carpeted to avoid leaving traces in the sand, said John Modlin, the area manager.

“An incredibly different story of two borders, even though they’re in the same state,” Modlin said.

Migrants who are not from Mexico and the Northern Triangle accounted for 41% of border stops from October to July, up from just 12% three years earlier, according to government data.

In Yuma, they wear sandals and carry shopping bags full of belongings on their shoulders. Some carry toddlers. Migrants typically walk a short distance through tribal lands and surrender to officers, expecting to be released to continue their immigration cases.

Meanwhile, Mexicans made up 35% of all border encounters from October to July, more than three years ago but well below the 85% reported in 2011 and 95% at the turn of the century.

In theory, the rule that denies migrants the right to seek asylum on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19 applies to all nationalities. But in practice, Title 42 is enforced largely for migrants accepted by Mexico, which has agreed to take in people deported from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as well as its own citizens.

It is difficult for the United States to send others to their home country due to costs, strained diplomatic relations and other considerations.

“The challenge is what Mexico can accept,” Modlin said. “That will always be a limiting factor.”

In Yuma, title 42 has become almost non-existent, with the pandemic rule being applied in only 192 of 24,424 stops in July – less than 1%. In Tucson, it was used in 71% of stops. A court order kept Title 42 in place indefinitely.

It is unclear why the routes are so divergent. U.S. officials believe the inhospitable mountains and canyons near Tucson favor people trying to evade detection, while the ease of traversal in places like Yuma makes these paths better suited for families looking to get to.

“What we know with absolute certainty is that smuggling organizations control the flow,” Modlin said. “They decide who goes where and when they go to the point. It’s almost like air traffic control to move people around.”

In Yuma, groups of up to 20 migrants are dropped off by bus or car on a deserted Mexican highway, then begin arriving shortly after midnight at the edge of the imposing wall built under President Donald Trump.

If English and Spanish fail, officers use Google Translate to interrogate them under generator-powered lights, take photos and load them onto buses.

Migrants arrive for several hours on different paths, raising concern among officers that smugglers are trying to confuse them into slipping through undetected.

On a recent morning, six Russians said they flew from Istanbul to Tijuana, Mexico, with a stopover in Cancun, and hired a driver to take them four hours down the deserted highway where they crossed.

A 26-year-old man who flew from his home in Peru to Tijuana said the hardest part of the trip was the anxiety over whether he would make it to his destination in New Jersey.

Nelson Munera, 40, said he, his wife and their 17-year-old son got off a bus on the highway and drove through Yuma because fellow Colombians had taken the same route.

Lazaro Lopez, who came with his 9-year-old son from Cuba by flying to Nicaragua and crossing overland into Mexico, chose Yuma because that’s where his smuggler guided him.

“An opportunity presented itself,” Lopez, 48, said.

Border Patrol drops off hundreds of migrants every day at the Regional Center for Border Health, a clinic near Yuma that charters six buses a day to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Migrants are released on humanitarian parole or with a summons to appear in immigration court.

The clinic began airport shuttles for migrants in February 2021 and recently added buses to Washington, paid for by the state of Arizona.

“We’ve seen families from over 140 countries,” said Amanda Aguirre, chief executive of the healthcare provider. “We haven’t seen one from Mexico, not through our treatment.”

The change is also evident on the Mexican side of the border.

The Don Chon migrant shelter in nearby San Luis Rio Colorado fills many of its roughly 50 beds with Central Americans who have been deported under Title 42.

Kelvin Zambrano, 33, who arrived in a large group of Hondurans, said he fled extortion threats and gang violence. Border Patrol agents wouldn’t let him share his story, he said.

“I don’t know why, but they don’t want Hondurans,” he said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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