At midday Wednesday, August 15, a woman sat at the far end of a blue bench in standard-issue white T-shirt and Crocs, waiting for her fingerprints to be processed. Other than her son playing under a nearby table, she was alone in the detention facility waiting room, the other five rows of benches empty.
It’s a far departure from the Yuma temporary holding facility’s opening in June, when the soft-tent center was at its 500-people capacity within two days.
The dramatic surge in the number of migrant families crossing into the U.S. Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector earlier this year has drawn worldwide attention.
One solution was this temporary shelter, made possible thanks to a $15 million deal between the federal government and Deployed Resources, a private contractor. Families who arrive at the four-tent facility stay for up to three days, receiving health evaluations, a change of clothes, toiletries like diapers and sanitary pads, showers, and mattresses to sleep on.
But since June, the number of people crossing the border into Yuma has dropped. While the majority of people Yuma Border Patrol apprehends continue to arrive in family units, there are far fewer daily arrivals.
Once-full holding tents now have only about 25 people each, or fewer. Medical staff from Loyal Source Government Services, the Yuma facility’s health-care provider, sit texting without patients. A Phoenix New Times reporter accompanied border patrol agents on a three-hour ride-along in which there were no apprehensions — something agents said would have been unheard of a few months ago.
Yuma Border Patrol agents believe the quell in migration is directly due to the Mexican government’s crackdown on migrants from Central America crossing through the country into the United States, following an immigration enforcement deal signed between the two countries in early June.
The majority of the families Yuma Border Patrol apprehends are from Guatemala — almost 90 percent — who give themselves up at the border. According to agents, only 7.5 percent of them claim asylum — though it’s important to note that Border Patrol does not include “personal violence” like gang violence or domestic abuse in their definition of asylum. In addition to economic reasons, Yuma agents said many families cite escaping from gang violence as a motivation for fleeing their home countries.
After September, Yuma Sector Border Patrol will have the option to extend the temporary holding facility through January at a cost of $3.7 million a month. After that, the fate of the facility is unknown.
No one knows if there’ll be another surge like earlier this year.
In March, Yuma Sector Border Patrol released hundreds of migrants in Yuma, saying they simply couldn’t process all of them. The city’s mayor declared a state of emergency in April, and in July, reports circulated of sexual assault that had occurred in a migrant station where children were being held. Almost half of Yuma Border Patrol’s apprehensions have been children. The sector is the third-busiest crossing area along the entire Southwestern border, with a little over half of its annual $6.4 million dollar budget spent on holding family groups.
Agents working at Yuma Border Patrol repeated what they’ve been saying for months: They don’t have the resources for the job they’re being asked to do. The opening of a temporary facility for migrant families and a depreciated number of summer arrivals have helped, but agents fear what will happen if funding for the facility runs out at the dawn of next year.
So far in 2019, Yuma Sector agents have apprehended over 50,000 family units — a 367 percent increase compared to last year. U.S. Border Patrol currently has no training in caring for migrant children or family units, but the Flores Agreement requires that families with minor children not be held in detention for more than 20 days — including time spent in Border Patrol custody and subsequent transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.
But as the surge of families increased in Yuma, processing times lagged. Families were held in the same concrete detention center as single adult migrants — designed to hold people for no more than 72 hours — for up to five days. Overcrowding was common and access to hygiene limited.
“I’m sure you’re seen the reports, ‘They’ve got their little water fountains over the toilets, and oh my God, it’s so bad!’” said Wes Burch, Yuma Border Patrol special operations supervisor. “But it’s a detention facility. It wasn’t designed for family units, but it’s all we had.”
Restaurants including a local McDonald’s were asked to donate food, and the military was called in to help care for migrant families — Marine Corps personnel were warming up soup — so Border Patrol could resume normal enforcement operations.
“It’s something that we in the Border Patrol have never encountered in the history of our agency,” said Border Patrol Agent Jose Garibay III. “So we had to adapt.”
Despite the recent change in arrivals, Yuma Border Patrol agents still believe a holding facility specifically for migrant families is needed — if funding allows for it.
“This isn’t forever,” Burch said of the temporary holding facility. “And if our numbers climb back up, we’re right back where we left off.”
Health care professionals sit in the facility, awaiting incoming migrant family arrivals.
Empty benches line the entrance of the Yuma temporary holding facility.
The border wall separating Yuma and Mexico along the Imperial Sand Dunes.