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Federal Government Is Accused Of Leaving Migrants In Border Towns


The number of people that U.S. authorities are taking into custody at the southern border is on pace to set records. Most people are being sent back to Mexico, but there are exceptions. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from rural Arizona, where there is a big controversy over whether the federal government is just dropping migrants off.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: From Tucson, drive west 100 miles across the remote, mountainous and hot Sonoran Desert just north of Mexico and Highway 86 starts getting rougher and narrower as you get close to the old mining town of Ajo, Ariz. Behind the Ajo Plaza and its ornate Spanish colonial buildings, two white U.S. Border Patrol vans pull into a dusty alley. Agents hop out, slide open the doors, and families with children pile out. One woman limps as she picks up her suitcase and a plastic bag with bedsheets.

This woman that I'm watching right now looks very tired, very stressed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGLER: Volunteers then usher them inside a small gym they've converted to an improvised shelter, where they're handed water and told where they are. Most have no idea. They've just been released from detention.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGLER: A welcomer explains they'll first need a COVID test, which the U.S. government isn't doing unless migrants show symptoms. The families, most of whom look middle class, sit down and wait, exhausted.

A woman and her young son from Cuba have literally just been reunited with their shoelaces.

This young boy tries to lace his while his mom, crying, makes her first phone call in days. Eighty-two-year-old Ajo local Jose Castillo is a volunteer interpreter.

JOSE CASTILLO: Border Patrol drop them off here in town. Where else can they go? It's like me taking you all the way to China, drop you in the middle of town. What are you going to do?

SIEGLER: All of this is the immediate aftermath of a controversial practice called rural releases that the U.S. government began doing here last month. The Border Patrol, which did not respond to requests for an on-the-record interview, says the pandemic limits how many people they can safely hold at nearby facilities, and they don't have the funding to drive them to cities. So the migrants who do qualify for potential asylum and can prove they have sponsors in the U.S. are being dropped in rural Arizona towns like this. There's no public transportation in Ajo, which isn't even incorporated, so the burden is on private donors and volunteers like Castillo.

CASTILLO: When somebody needs help, that's what we're here for - because migrants, since the beginning of time, they migrate from one part to the next part to the next part, wherever you can live.

SIEGLER: Most apprehended migrants are being sent back to Mexico unless they're unaccompanied children or, in some cases, families like these from countries like Cuba or Venezuela. That's because the Mexican authorities are refusing to take back migrants that aren't from Central America. Sound confusing? It is, says Regina Romero. She's the mayor of Tucson.

REGINA ROMERO: We are dealing with the effects of the previous four years of the Trump administration's policy of cruelty and chaos.

SIEGLER: Romero, whose parents were farmworkers, says Trump tried to dismantle the country's immigration and refugee system. She's willing to give President Biden some time to fix things, but she says the rural releases aren't fair to migrants or people living in the remote Sonoran towns. The mayor of Gila Bend, Ariz., recently declared a state of emergency.

ROMERO: What is not acceptable is for Border Patrol to drop off asylum-seekers and individuals and many times children without taking them to a particular location where we have a process.

SIEGLER: There is a process in Tucson that started in 2014, where local humanitarians staff a shelter for asylum-seekers and help pay for them to get on planes to reach family in other states while they await court dates.

DIEGO PENA LOPEZ: When guests first arrive, we meet them outside where the buses are.

SIEGLER: Diego Pena Lopez helps run the Casa Alitas Welcome Center, a converted juvenile detention center in Tucson. Volunteers with this Catholic nonprofit, along with Pima County, now scramble to send vans to towns like Ajo when they hear about drop-offs.

PENA LOPEZ: It's obviously so challenging and concerning that we have to be prepping in this way, that the possibility is we could see rural releases start tomorrow in a new community.

SIEGLER: The Biden administration is saying only that it will open a more official migrant shelter in Tucson in the next month. Also, it plans to house other migrants in hotels in the Phoenix area. Local governments and aid groups expect they'll get reimbursed. For now, Lopez says things are mostly manageable.

PENA LOPEZ: People going back and saying it's a surge, this and that. You walk through the space, and you do not see a drowning of people, the exact opposite. You're seeing volunteers organizing, thinking ahead on how to work with these rural communities where people have stacked the deck against us.

SIEGLER: That's the feeling back in Ajo anyway, too. Border towns like this don't seem like they're being overrun. Here, a cadre of local volunteers has found a daily rhythm. They get a heads-up text from the local Border Patrol station, then head down to the plaza to help. It's just not sustainable, says Jose Castillo, the volunteer interpreter.

CASTILLO: But in my way of seeing things, this is not Ajo's problem. This is the government's problem.

SIEGLER: The government created it, he says, and they own it.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Ajo, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "VALLEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.