SASABE, Mexico (Border Report) — Jose Garcia Hernandez, a 39-year-old construction worker from Chiapas, Mexico, straggled behind the group of seven other migrant men Wednesday afternoon after U.S. Border Patrol agents expelled them into the desolate border town of Sasabe, Mexico, just feet from the one-gas-station town of Sasabe, Arizona.
Wearing a blue surgical mask, camouflage baseball cap, and a backpack, Hernandez said he was apprehended while walking along Highway 86 near the tribal reservation lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation, about 40 miles away. He had been trying to get to Phoenix, which is about 170 miles north of where Border Report witnessed him being expelled into this Mexican desert town. Population: 2,000.
Sasabe, Mexico, has a couple of convenience stores, but there are no taxis or buses, and most migrants who are dropped here have no money or means to get anywhere else. Townsfolk say they don’t have the ability to care for a sudden surge of migrants who are being released into this area after U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehend them and drive them to the tiny hamlet checkpoint of Sasabe, Arizona, and make them walk south.
That is why several nonprofit groups from southern Arizona have formed a collaboration to rush food and supplies to this remote part of the border. Weekly, they are sending over 700 bottles of water, 700 packets of protein bars and fruit cups, and 700 sandwiches “with the effort of the whole community,” said Dora Rodriguez, of the Tucson-based nonprofit group Salvavision. “People are being so gracious.”
The volunteers say that anywhere from 100 to 125 migrants per day are being expelled in Sasabe.
“This is inhumane. They are dropping these migrants in a place where there is nothing for them,” Rodriguez said at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, as she and other volunteers with the group Tucson Samaritans loaded a well-worn red SUV named “Joe” full of supplies and food they were sending to Sasabe.
In Spanish, Hernandez told Border Report that he was picked up by immigration authorities and crammed with seven other men into the camper atop a Border Patrol truck and driven to the border and quickly told to get out. He said he crossed illegally into the United States to find work and now he was uncertain where he would go or what he would do.
As we spoke with him around 1:30 p.m., a second Border Patrol truck pulled up to the quiet checkpoint — one at which you have to walk over a metal cattle guard to reach. Agents opened the camper hatch and six migrant men were released from that vehicle and expelled into Mexico.
All wore surgical masks. Their shoelaces and belts, however, had been confiscated, which is standard protocol Border Patrol officials have said, as a safety measure. None of the men in that second SUV spoke with Border Report, but when asked how they felt about where they were going and whether they planned to walk there, one man showed us his black shoes void of shoelaces and threw his hands in the air.
They then walked into the interior of the remote Mexican desert town. Mexican immigration officials in bright orange shirts watched as they walked in, but they did not permit the recording of any Mexican agents, vehicles, or license plates.
U.S. Border Patrol agents expelled the above migrants from Sasabe, Arizona, into remote Sasabe, Mexico, two desert border towns at least 50 miles from any major towns. (Photos by Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)
This area has become a hotspot for expulsions in just the past month, said Gail Kocourek, 69, a volunteer with Tucson Samaritans, a nonprofit group that has been taking water, food, blankets, belts, and even shoelaces to Sasabe, Mexico, to help the expelled migrants. The other day, she said, she came upon 23 mostly camouflage backpacks in the desert, a telltale sign of migrants who often pay coyotes, or cartels, to take them across the border.
Part of the reason many migrants are crossing into the United States through these tribal lands is that it’s where the border wall is not being built. Several lawsuits have challenged the building of the 30-foot border wall on the tribal lands, so the familiar rusted metal bollards that span for miles on the border of southern Arizona have miles of gaps where the tribal lands are located.
And that is where cartel and coyote traffickers are slipping people illegally across, locals tell Border Report.
Kocourek said that as border travel restrictions began to ease here in mid-September after months of complete shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of migrants trying to cross into southern Arizona began to increase. And her group started collecting goods to help those who are expelled.
“There is no shelter. It’s 90 kilometers to the nearest town of Altar, Mexico. There are no buses or taxis in Sasabe (Mexico). They have to pay to get to Altar. And right now, Sasabe is totally controlled by the cartel,” Kocourek said.
Border Patrol first met Kocourek during the Border Report Tour and followed her for a daylong venture through the desert as she checked on crosses left to mark migrants who died in the desert, and dropped jugs of water.
Now, her sights are focused on helping the migrants expelled into Sasabe, Mexico, she says.
This vast desolate region is dangerously rugged, and temperatures swing from highs in triple-digits in the summer to freezing in the winter. Migrants trying to make their way north of the checkpoint are told to always keep to the left shoulder of the striking Baboquivari Peak — a sacred mountain 7,730-feet-high where the Tohono O’odham believe their deity, Etoy, lives. That is the compass they use as they meander through the desert scrub and try and hide from agents when they hear vehicles approaching.
But many get arrested as they try to navigate their way through the thorny choyo cactus and ocotillo plants and the prickly pear and barrel cacti that dot this arid vast lands. And with increasing frequency, migrants are being driven to the remote border checkpoint in Sasabe, Arizona, with one red brick building, and then they are expelled and told to walk south over the line into Mexico.
With border restrictions still in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, under Title 42, Homeland Security has given Border Patrol agents the go-ahead to conduct immediate expulsions that agency leaders say typically take under two hours. This is also meant to minimize the potential spread of the virus to arresting agents.
Migrants who are expelled are not processed or given a court date for potential claims for asylum in the United States. They are immediately released into Mexico with no recourse to return or make their claims in court.
Kocourek and fellow volunteer Baldemar Peralta, a 52-year-old computer technician from Tucson, gave Border Report a tour of the southern Arizona borderlands on Wednesday. They drove an hour in “Joe” from Tucson to the twin-city Sasabe border checkpoint.
They parked on the U.S. side, where they were met by other volunteers from the neighboring Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans group. The volunteers then loaded the goods into their silver van and drove it a few feet over the international boundary line into Sasabe, Mexico, where a group of retired women quickly unloaded it and stored it in a freezer near the checkpoint.
Kocourek’s group had sent 200 bags filled with fruit and granola bars and 150 frozen chicken sandwiches. They excitedly tried to stuff it all into the white refrigerator, and they estimated the food would last about two days.
“I know that we have saved the lives of many, many people,” said Shura Wallin, a 79-year-old thin retiree wearing a floral facemask and shirt bearing the name of her nonprofit. Wallin founded this Samaritan group 20 years ago and has been dropping water jugs in the desert for migrants for decades. But it has only been in the past month that they have started helping out in Sasabe when they noticed a surge of migrants dropped off there, she said.
“There are a lot of people who are very opposed of what we’re doing and they would rather just let people die in the desert because they think that if we put water out we’re encouraging people to come, which is totally ridiculous,” Wallin said. “The people in the U.S. don’t understand what is pushing people to come.”
Just minutes after witnessing the migrant expulsions, 83-year-old Marie Gery of Minnesota, approached Kocourek’s red, worn Four-Runner SUV, seeing the placard on the side identifying the Tucson Samaritans nonprofit.
Gery said she lived in Tucson for 20 years before moving north, but on Wednesday, this widow returned, alone, to experience the borderlands once again.
Her frail body underneath a mask too big for her small face, she said she was planning to walk into Sasabe, Mexico, to see what was happening to the migrants there.
“That’s one of the reasons I came down. I want to go back with a hands-on knowledge of heat, of wreckless with lives, which makes me unhappy,” she said. “Because people who don’t live here who aren’t in the Arizona/Texas area have no idea about the reality of the desert and the reality of the people who are trying for another life and it’s heartbreaking.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.