New Facilities Opening in Arizona to Process Influx of Migrants

Hannah Critchfield
The border wall separating Yuma and Mexico along the Imperial Sand Dunes.
The federal government will construct new facilities in Arizona to handle the recent spike in migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, the country's chief immigration official said.

In a news release issued on March 16, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will be "standing up additional facilities in Texas and Arizona to shelter unaccompanied children and families."

"Based on past experience, evaluation of operational requirements, and challenges due to COVID-19 space restrictions, we need additional processing facilities when we see rising numbers of encounters," said a statement by CBP released by spokesperson John Mennell. "As we work to build and improve permanent facilities for the safe and orderly processing of individuals at the border, temporary soft-sided facilities are sometimes necessary to meet operational needs that may arise due to rising encounters, particularly under challenging circumstances."

The facilities, which will likely be constructed in both the Yuma and Tucson Border Patrol sectors in Arizona, will be similar to the temporary, tent-like, 185,000-square-foot structures built in Donna, Texas, last month to shelter and process migrants who have been detained by Border Patrol.

While a February 9 CBP news release stated that the facility is "climate-controlled" and has "ample areas for eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene," immigration lawyers told the Washington Post that detained minors are packed into the facility, where they have to wait days on end just to shower. They are often detained for longer than CBP's own three-day limit for minors.

"We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children," Secretary Mayorkas said in the news release. "This is not new. We have experienced migration surges before – in 2019, 2014, and before then as well. Since April 2020, the number of encounters at the southwest border has been steadily increasing."

The announcement comes as President Joe Biden comes under increasing scrutiny for his response to a spike in migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. CBP is reporting spikes in migrants apprehended at the southern border, as well as increases in detained unaccompanied minors and and adults along Arizona's border with Mexico. So far this year in the Yuma Sector, Border Patrol agents have apprehended 945 unaccompanied minors, while the Tucson Sector has taken in over 4,000.

In his statement, Mayorkas attributed the current surge to poverty and violence in Central America, as well as to two recent hurricanes that devastated the region and created more refugees. The increase in migrants is straining existing shelters on both sides of the border.

In Arizona, Border Patrol officials have started releasing detained asylum seekers in Yuma and Tucson. Officials in smaller border communities have been told by CBP to expect more releases of asylum-seekers, prompting concerns about a lack of shelter capacity in rural communities or transportation resources to get migrants to other areas.

"We do not have any nonprofit that is set up to provide shelter," Doug Nicholls, the mayor of Yuma, recently told Phoenix New Times. "We don't have the network that the Phoenix metro area has."

He added that the Biden administration needs to "prioritize releases" in communities that have the "resources to do that ebb and flow."

In his March 16 statement, Mayorkas said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has "developed additional facilities to provide testing, local transportation" and other services for migrant families that are not expelled, though he did not specify if those efforts would become operational in Arizona. Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, a spokesperson for ICE, did not have additional information regarding Mayorkas' statement.

Elected officials in Tucson are also expressing anxiety about the quickly-developing situation at the border.

"The federal government, through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is releasing asylum seekers to shelters operated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or in the worst case, simply releasing individuals to the streets," Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry wrote in a memo dated March 5. "We have made numerous requests for assistance using the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) public assistance to provide non-congregate shelter."

"We know that they’re coming. We know that we're going to have to do things such as get hotel rooms," said Tucson City Councilmember Steve Kozachik. "We know how to do the work. We just need the federal funding to help us get it done."

The Biden administration recently announced that it is deploying FEMA to the border to help handle the spike in unaccompanied minors at the border. However, it is unclear where along the border FEMA will work. The agency did not respond to New Times' questions regarding whether its work on the border would affect Arizona.

Diego Piña Lopez, program manager at Casa Alitas, a shelter for migrants in Tucson operated by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, said that, for now, the facility is not feeling "overwhelmed."

"We do have an increase in numbers of guests coming through the shelter," he said. "This is not the norm of what we’ve seen in the past."

(This article was updated about an hour after publication with a statement from CBP.)