SAN LUIS, Ariz. (AP) — The 3-year-old boy with a bowl haircut and striped shirt silently clung to his father in the back of a U.S. Border Patrol truck.
Their shoes still muddy from crossing the border, the father and son had just been apprehended at a canal near a border fence in Arizona on a muggy night in July.
Before the father, son and two older children could make it any farther, a Border Patrol agent intervened and directed them through a large border gate.
The father handed over documents that showed gang members had committed crimes against his family, one of the ways immigrants who seek asylum try to prove their cases. After a wait, he and his children were hauled away in a van to be processed at a Border Patrol station about 20 miles away in Yuma.
The encounter witnessed by The Associated Press illustrates how families are still coming into the U.S. even in the face of daily global headlines about the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policies. The flow of families from Central America is especially pronounced in this overlooked stretch of border in Arizona and California.
The Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector has seen a more than 120 percent spike in the number of families and unaccompanied children caught at the border over the last year, surprising many in an area that had been largely quiet and calm for the past decade.
So far this fiscal year, agents in the Yuma sector have apprehended nearly 10,000 families and 4,500 unaccompanied children, a giant increase from just seven years ago when they arrested only 98 families and 222 unaccompanied children.
The Trump administration’s policy of separating families did not seem to be slowing the flow. The Border Patrol here apprehended an average of 30 families per day in June, when the uproar over the policy was at its peak, an increase from May. Yuma is now the second-busiest sector for family border crossings next to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
Agents and border crossers here have many things to contend with. Parts of the border are urban, with fences and canals on the U.S. side directly across from a home’s backyard in Mexico. The sector includes Arizona and part of California, along with the Imperial Sand Dunes and Colorado River.
While drug smugglers and other criminals use the vast desert to cross illegally, most families and children simply walk or swim across into the U.S. and wait to be arrested, according to Border Patrol spokesman Jose Garibay. Many travel in large groups, he said.
Garibay says he was once on assignment when he encountered a group of over 60 families and children.
Dealing with large numbers of families and children has proven to be logistically difficult for the agency. There are only so many vans to transport the immigrants to the sector’s processing facility in Yuma.
Many don’t understand why so many families and children from Central America are coming to the U.S. through this stretch of Arizona and braving its extreme summer heat, when the more direct path takes them to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, more than 1,000 miles away.
Garibay said migration patterns are largely controlled by the cartels that smuggle people across. The Mexican state of Tamaulipas that borders the Rio Grande has been experiencing extreme violence by drug cartels that the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently said are fighting for “every inch” of control of the river where migrants are often smuggled in Texas.
Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute says it’s noteworthy that most of the border crossers in the Yuma sector are Guatemalans. He said it’s possible many are headed for California and that crossing through the Yuma area may be the safest and simplest way to do that.
They are encountering a section of border that the government hails as its gold standard for border security. It was one of the busiest sectors in the country for years before new fencing, technology, remote surveillance and more agents resulted in a drastic drop in border crossings.
“It’s really been a combined effort across the whole agency to be able to turn this sector into something that is manageable and not somewhere there was 138,000 apprehensions back in 2005,” Garibay said.
Yuma is an agricultural hub that relies heavily on immigrant labor to harvest crops, mainly lettuce and dates. Hundreds of Mexican workers cross the border with special visas to work the fields. Their employers have to pay to house and feed them, and they earn around $10 an hour.
The Yuma area supplies 90 percent of the nation’s leafy greens for most of the year— a $2.5-billion-a-year industry. It’s a place heavily reliant on immigrant labor, but also where President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 5 points.
A 45-minute drive from the city of Yuma south through a number of fields leads to San Luis, Arizona, the small border city where clothing shops and Mexican restaurants line the street leading to Mexico.
On the same night the 3-year-old and his family were taken into custody, an agent out on patrol near Yuma spotted two men and two boys ages 12 and 13 from Guatemala standing on a road waiting to be arrested. The group had walked through a knee-high canal and their pants and shoes were wet and dirty. An agent gathered their names, home countries and dates of birth before putting them in his truck while waiting for a transport van. The men and boys said nothing as they were taken away.
At a shelter for immigrants on the Mexico side, more recently deported immigrants, families and Central Americans have been showing up this year. Casa del Migrante la Divina Providencia was seeing about 1,000 people each month in 2017. In 2018, over 2,000 people started showing up monthly, according to Martin Salgado, who runs the shelter.
Most of the people served at the shelter are Mexicans who were deported. But on occasion, Central Americans making their way north stopped here for a warm meal, a prayer and a bed.
Jose Blanco, 28, had left Honduras nearly a month prior to arriving at the shelter. He and two others tried crossing the border illegally near San Luis but came back after six hours on foot, when he found it was too hot and dangerous to keep going.
Blanco, the father of two children who were back in Honduras, said he planned on going home instead of trying to cross again.
“It’s too hard here right now,” Blanco said.