Against the backdrop of a national debate over immigration and several years of low numbers of people illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, early signs of an increase in illegal migration are being reported by ranchers, social service agencies and the U.S. Border Patrol along the 388-mile border in Arizona.
Ranchers said they have seen increasing numbers of crossers on their land in southern Arizona. Shelters in Mexico have also reported more migrants using their facilities and U.S. officials said they are rescuing more immigrants in the Sonoran Desert.
Sue and Jim Chilton, whose ranch has a 5½ mile border with Mexico, said that cut fences, broken water lines, trails of trash bags and immigrants photographed on remote cameras are indicators of an increased number of crossers.
Across the border in Mexico, Juan Francisco Loureiro and his wife, Gilda, who run the San Juan Bosco shelter for migrants in Nogales, Sonora, said they have provided shelter for 22,248 border-crossers this year — compared with 21,304 by the same time last year.
And though the number of arrests of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has remained steady, U.S. officials are reporting more rescues of immigrants in the Arizona desert. Between Oct. 1, 2011, and May 1, 2012, there were 202 rescues; in the same period this year, there have been 263 rescues, according to Andy Adame, spokesman for Border Patrol in Arizona. In all of 2012, the Border Patrol reported that it had rescued 634 immigrants, an increase of 120 from 2011.
As border security has heightened in the past 18 years, the flow of migrants, mostly guided by smugglers, has shifted away from major crossing points like Nogales, Naco and Douglas and into more remote and dangerous desert terrains.
Immigrants are often left disoriented, dehydrated and stranded by smugglers in the desert, Adame said.
More than 85 percent of the immigrants rescued by the Border Patrol suffer from extreme dehydration or injuries and are transported to local hospitals, Adame said.
Death is common in the desert: Adame said 70 migrants have died in Arizona so far this year, compared with 100 deaths at the same time last year.
While rescues are increasing, Adame said arrests, which are an indication of the number of immigrants crossing the border illegally, are down, but only by about two-tenths of 1 percent. So far this year, Border Patrol has apprehended 82,463 people, a decrease of 173 from the same time in 2012, he said.
During the recession, unauthorized immigration fell sharply, but as the U.S. economy improves, it is possible that the immigration flow could increase, said Christopher Wilson, a researcher for the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
In Mexico, directors of shelters and food centers in the state of Sonora said immigrants who come from the south include Mexicans and people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Immigrants’ economic needs and financial obligations to families in their countries of origin override their concerns about the dangers of taking on the potentially deadly Arizona desert.
The shelters in Nogales and San Luis Rio Colorado, two border towns, are overnight stops for thousands of immigrants who have either been deported shortly after crossing into the U.S. or who are on their way to cross. The recent wave of deportees has strained shelters in Mexican cities bordering Arizona, shelter directors said.
The Loureiros said they worried that migrants arriving at the shelter are misinformed about the complexities of immigration reform in the U.S.
“There’s a lot of publicity,” Gilda Loureiros said. “People in the United States are encouraging their family members in Mexico to cross into the U.S. because there is a perception that they’ll be able to qualify for citizenship under the reform.”
Adame said the Border Patrol could not determine whether more people were crossing the border because of the possibility of changes in policy toward immigrants in the U.S.
“We have encountered illegal immigrants that have claimed that the reason they decided to cross illegally was because of the immigration reform talks, but we have not encountered a significant number of them to say it’s any kind of trend,” Adame wrote in an email.
On a recent Monday, Loureiro said a mother and her 11-year-old daughter, both of whom had been deported, arrived at the shelter. The mother had a fractured leg, an injury she got while trying to cross the border so they could reunite with her husband in New York.
“Relatives in the U.S. send money to their family members so they can attempt to cross, but the smugglers who take them across the border steal their money,” said Juan Francisco Loureiro.
The shelter helped the mother and daughter pay for their bus tickets back to Guerrero. “She said they were not going to cross anymore,” he said.
A 10-minute drive from San Juan Bosco is the Kino Border Initiative, a food shelter mainly for those who have just been sent back from the United States.
At Kino, about 300 meals are served daily. On a Saturday afternoon, Sister Alma Delia Isais Aguilar served a pork stew, posole, to about 50 people who sat on benches under a shaded patio.
“I’ve been here since 2009 and comparing then to now, the amount of people who want to go to the United States and those who have been deported has increased, especially now that they are discussing immigration reform,” Sister Isais Aguilar said in Spanish. “For this reason, the number of people crossing for the first time has increased.”
At Casa del Migrante La Divina Providencia, a shelter in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, about 45 minutes south of Yuma there has been a significant increase in the number of migrants, most deported from California. So far 10,960 migrants have spent up to three nights in the shelter, said director Olga Alicia Escalante. At the same time last year, 6,328 migrants had arrived at the shelter.
“Many of them return to their places of origin,” she said. “Others say they will attempt to cross again because they abandoned their families.”
In the Arizona desert, about 20 miles from the border, Peggy and Jon Rowley live on a 33,000-acre cattle ranch in Arivaca. From a hilltop on his ranch, Jon Rowley pointed at dirt trails used by immigrants who head toward Tucson. Downhill there is a windmill and a rusty water tank where Rowley said immigrants often drink.
“People ask for us to hose them down with water, and you do that because you feel horrible for them,” said Peggy Rowley. “Some ask for Border Patrol because they quit, and others are trying to get back” to Mexico, she added. Rowley said she has seen “rape trees,” places where smugglers hide, rape female migrants and hang their victims’ underwear on branches.
About 15 miles down the road, Tom Kay owns an 18,000-acre cattle ranch that includes 4½ miles of the border fenced only with barbed wire. Kay said Border Patrol agents are always active on the ranch. He said he has seen more immigrants carrying drugs and guns on his land in the past few months.
At the Chilton Ranch, Jim Chilton said he saw Border Patrol agents chasing four immigrants on his property on a recent Monday. Three days before, he encountered two others, a young man and a teenage girl, who asked for a ride back to Mexico. The Chiltons gave them water and pointed them in the direction of Mexico.
“We’ve had people die on our ranch,” he said. “It’s just awful.”