Angela Gervasi, Nogales International, 7 December 2023

Over a recent December weekend in a western corner of Santa Cruz County, a man from Morocco leaned on crutches as he attempted to trek through the desert. Stationed near the U.S.-Mexico border fence, other migrants lit small bonfires in an effort to counteract the dwindling temperatures of nightfall.

These are two of the scenes humanitarian volunteers recounted to the NI as they described a relatively new entry point for large groups of asylum-seeking migrants: a rugged area west of Nogales and east of Sásabe.

Smugglers are leading the migrants to the area, the volunteers said, and some asylum-seekers have camped out several nights in the desolate spot, waiting to be picked up and processed by U.S. Border Patrol. Many are families. The aid workers listed various countries of origin ranging from Mexico and Guatemala to Sudan and Senegal.

“These people are here for multiple days,” said Bryce Peterson, a volunteer with the non-profit No More Deaths.

“We’re very concerned about this,” echoed Barb Lemmon, a retired nurse who volunteers with the Green Valley Sahuarita Samaritans.

Speaking to the NI, Lemmon shared a photo of a small, discarded baby’s sock, stained with dirt, which she said she’d picked up at the site.

“It’s like camping,” she later added, “without a tent or a sleeping bag.”

The terrain, some volunteers said, poses a number of threats, like near-freezing temperatures and potential extortion from cartels waiting just across the border.

The pattern of new migrant arrivals east of Sásabe has been unfolding for weeks, volunteers said. Over the first weekend of December, Peterson estimated, about 300 were gathered in the area.

And as aid workers greet the migrants with Red Cross blankets, sandwiches, winter clothing and medical care, they describe the crisis as one that has largely fallen on small nonprofits, who rely on donations and volunteers.

With smugglers continuing to funnel migrants through desolate areas of the desert, far more resources are required to provide aid, Peterson said, along with more accessible and safe ways for migrants to seek asylum.

At the very least, he added, “there has to be either a permanent aid station … or for Border Patrol to find some way to actually be picking people up right away.”

Moving east

Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced the closure of the Lukeville Port of Entry, about 100 miles west of Nogales, amid large numbers of asylum-seekers crossing the area. There, port officers began temporary reassignments “in order to redirect personnel to assist the U.S. Border Patrol with taking migrants into custody,” CBP said in a statement.

As opposed to the large groups crossing in Lukeville, the crossings in western Santa Cruz County appear more recent – and it’s not entirely clear what is pushing the trend, though the surrounding region, which includes the Sonoran border town of Sásabe, has experienced a number of recent major shifts.

“We have noticed with the filling in of some of the gaps in the wall east of Sásabe … it’s pushing migration further and further to the east,” said Laurie Cantillo, a board member and water truck driver with non-profit Humane Borders.

Several volunteers also pointed to ongoing violence in Sásabe – where fighting has broken out between rival cartels – as a potential factor in the migration patterns traveling east.

“(T)wo factions … have been battling, not over synthetic drug trafficking routes, but control of migrant smuggling through this corridor,” an analysis from the non-profit think tank InSight Crime said earlier this month.

It’s also not clear why Border Patrol response times in the area are reportedly lagging, though volunteers listed a number of factors, including the remoteness of the area.

“We’re in four wheel drive dirt roads,” added Lemmon, the Samaritans volunteer.

Peterson, of No More Deaths, said volunteers have attempted to contact Border Patrol for assistance – particularly when migrants are experiencing medical issues – with what he described as an insufficient response. While agents have appeared to prioritize unaccompanied minors and some particularly dire medical emergencies, Peterson said, many others are stuck.

“Being in a place where it gets to freezing at night … there’s only so much you can really do outside of a medical setting,” he added.

Reached for comment, a CBP spokesperson described a general ebb and flow of migration trends, though he did not point to any reasons behind the recent groups of migrants in far west Santa Cruz County.

“As we respond with additional resources and apply consequences for unlawful entry, the migration trends shift as well,” the spokesperson said.

Also reached this week, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said it had not received any reports regarding large groups of migrants along the county’s western edge.

And while volunteers are making multiple trips – equipped with food, water and blankets – at times, they’ve run out. At one point, during a visit Monday, Lemmon said, a young boy asked for a jacket.

The Samaritans had given away all their donated clothing, and temperatures were dropping, Lemmon said, she gave him what she had – the shirt off her back.

“I’ll get another one,” Lemmon added.