TUCSON, Ariz. – The largest single group of migrant families and minors ever recorded in the Yuma area tunneled underneath a border fence and voluntarily turned themselves in to federal agents, according to Customs and Border Protection officials in Arizona.
A group of 376 migrants, composed almost overwhelmingly of Guatemalan families and children seeking asylum, breached the U.S.-Mexico border just before noon Monday, approximately 4½ miles east of the San Luis commercial port of entry.
Customs and Border Protection officials disclosed details of the incident Friday, releasing videos and photos showing the migrants walking along the U.S. side of the border fence and waiting in line for agents to process them.
Agent Jose Garibay, spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, said that migrants, with the help of smugglers, dug seven holes in the sandy soil underneath the bollard-style fence and the metal plates welded to the bottom of the barriers.
“The bollards, when they were put in, they didn’t have concrete footers, because it wasn’t designed to stop from digging under, it was designed to stop the vehicle traffic,” Garibay said.
The group included 176 minors, Customs and Border Protection said. Thirty of the minors were unaccompanied.
Overall, it is the largest, single group of families and minors ever recorded since the agency began seeing a surge in the arrival of these migrants in the past two years, Garibay said.
One 15-second video that the Border Patrol released Friday shows the large group of migrants walking along the border enforcement road next to the bollard-style fence.
A second, 26-second video taken by helicopters shows the migrants queuing up in line. Some are sitting in the desert sand as a Border Patrol agent processed paperwork.
In all, the process took “several hours,” Garibay said.
Since the group was so large, the Border Patrol had to pull agents from other assignments to help process and transport the migrants using any vehicles at their disposal, including patrol cars, vans and buses that “had to make several trips,” he added.
More families, minors crossing near Yuma
Though this is the largest single group, border agents in the Yuma area have routinely encountered large numbers of migrants crossing en masse.
The numbers and frequency have only increased since the area emerged as one of the busiest routes for Central Americans to reach to the United States.
The number of families and minors crossing through Yuma began to rise at the start of 2018, breaking records month after month. The government began tracking the data in 2013. This trend is seen nationwide, with historic numbers of families reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.
In fiscal year 2018, which ended in September, nearly three-quarters of all migrants encountered by border agents along the Yuma sector were families or minors.
These two groups are single-handedly driving up the number of apprehensions in the area, which is now at the highest level since 2008.
Stakeholders and migrant advocates on the ground don’t know why more and more Central American migrant families and minors are crossing through the Yuma area.
But border officials said they know what’s behind the surge in their arrivals to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“They know that if you travel with a child, or there’s a child with you when you cross, then you have to be released within 20 days,” Garibay said. “That’s what these smugglers are relying on. And that’s what these individuals are relying on.
“Which is why you see such a large number – 176 of these individuals are children, because they know the loopholes in our immigration system and they know how to exploit it, and that’s what they do,” he said.
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Details delayed because of shutdown?
Even though the apprehension of 376 migrants took place Monday, Customs and Border Protection officials made the incident public Friday, likely because of the ongoing partial government shutdown that has entered its fifth week.
President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats are at odds over his demand for $5.7 billion for border security, including a wall.
The border agency stopped sending regular updates about their enforcement activities at the start of the shutdown in December, publishing only a few releases.
Previously, the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector regularly sent updates about large groups of migrants crossing through the area.
Because of the shutdown, the Yuma Sector said it just received clearance Friday from Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C., to release information about Monday’s group.
Customs and Border Protection has not responded to requests for comment.
Yuma struggles with migrants arriving
In recent months, the Yuma area has struggled to cope with the increasing arrival of Central American families and minors due to the limited resources to house and care for them.
By law, the Border Patrol is allowed to keep only migrants in their custody for up to 72 hours before handing them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The arrival of large groups of asylum seekers at the same time has strained manpower, with the Yuma Sector having the second-fewest number of agents among all nine sectors along the border, according to Border Patrol’s most recent data.
Holding space has also been an issue.
“This group alone was 140 percent of capacity at the Yuma station,” Garibay said. “So to start the day, we already had individuals in custody, and then to top it off, this group that crossed all at the same time, in and of itself was 140 percent over our capacity.”
To cope with the situation, Border Patrol officials in Yuma said they transported some of the migrants to two other stations within their sector, one in Blythe and one in Wellton.
None of the 376 migrants in this group required medical attention, Garibay added. But the Yuma sector said they’ve seen an increase in the number of injuries, consistent with the surge in arrivals.
When this happens, such as when a 14-year-old girl was hospitalized in December after being dropped from the 18-foot-tall border fence, agents have to be pulled from their duties to remain with the migrants until they are released.
New barriers coming to Yuma this year
Areas close to where the migrants tunneled under the existing fence on Monday are slated to get replaced with newer, 30-foot-tall fencing starting in April.
Customs and Border Protection awarded a $172 million contract last year to a Montana company to install 14 miles of bollard-style fence in the desert area east of the San Luis port of entry.
Garibay said he was unsure whether the site of Monday’s breach is within the 14 miles slated for replacement.
Customs and Border Protection has previously said it plans to replace a total of 27 miles of fencing at the Yuma Sector.
About 25½ miles of that total is east of the San Luis border crossing, although so far Customs and Border Protection has announced plans to begin construction only on 14 miles at the sector’s easternmost portion.
Tunneling will likely remain a concern, even with new physical barriers.
Garibay said digging under the fences is not uncommon, given the sandiness of the soil throughout most of the sector.
In August, Border Patrol officials also found a drug tunnel inside an abandoned fast-food restaurant in San Luis.
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