YUMA, Ariz. — The young men wearing parkas and sweatshirts appeared out of the darkness around 2 a.m., running for a gap in the border wall and sending up great clouds of dust.

“Don’t run!” the other migrants shouted in Spanish. “Walk!” the Border Patrol agents yelled.

The 15 men, all from India, clustered together anxiously in line along with hundreds of others waiting to turn themselves in. The crowd included families from Colombia and Venezuela. Smiling Cuban 20-somethings taking selfies. Several young Iranians, the only ones wearing protective masks for COVID. A group of Georgians heading for New Jersey.

The polyglot queue in Yuma of what authorities call “give ups” presented a jarring contrast to the wild chases happening about 300 miles farther east along the border. Under a blazing afternoon sun in Nogales a day earlier, young men from Mexico wearing head-to-toe camouflage climbed over the border wall every few minutes in choreographed intervals, racing into dry creek beds, residential backyards and a sprawling junkyard. A dozen or so U.S. agents charged after them on ATVs, bicycles and horseback, badly outnumbered.

Arizona spans more than 370 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, and perhaps no other state better encapsulates the array of challenges facing U.S. officials trying to manage the illegal entries. Border crossers are arriving from more countries and in greater numbers than ever, at the same time that Mexican migration has surged to levels not matched since the mid-2000s.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is on pace to make more than 2 million arrests along the Mexico border during the 2022 fiscal year that ends in September, surpassing last year’s record of 1.73 million. About 400,000 have occurred in Arizona.


“The people who are crossing the border don’t pick where they cross the border,” John Modlin, the Border Patrol chief of the Tucson sector, said in an interview. “They are at the mercy of the smuggling organizations.”

CBP divides Arizona into two sectors, Yuma and Tucson. The Mexican traffickers who control smuggling routes have developed a tailored strategy for each one to move clients paying thousands of dollars to enter the United States.

The Tucson sector is used mostly for young men from Mexico. Smugglers guide them via cellphone through isolated desert and mountain areas, or send them to blitz the border wall in ones and twos, stretching U.S. agents whose numbers are spread too thin to stop them all. As daytime temperatures soar past 100 degrees, emergency rescue calls are constant and deaths from heat exposure are common. The smugglers play a numbers game, knowing agents are too tied up to arrest everyone and migrants rarely face legal consequences for getting caught.

Adults from Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries arrested in the Tucson sector are typically sent back across the border under an emergency public health policy implemented at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The policy, known as Title 42, gives U.S. agents a quick way to return migrants, but CBP officials acknowledge a spike in recidivism rates because there is no punishment or threat of jail for repeat crossing attempts.

In Nogales, one young man from Mexico’s Puebla state said it was the third time he’d been caught by agents in 15 days. His mother and father were waiting for him in New York City, he said. “I’ll keep trying,” he shrugged.

A cheap cellphone found in the bushes near the spot where he was arrested had text messages from an apparent smuggler. “POLLO,” one message read, using the smugglers’ term for customers. “ANSWER,” it said in Spanish.


The Yuma sector’s pattern is the near-opposite. Migrants from all over the world, including many families with children, arrive in groups of 60 to 100 between midnight and dawn. Vans, trucks and passenger vehicles drop them off along the banks of the Colorado River on the Mexican side, and they wade through knee-high water into the United States, entering through unfinished segments of the border wall.

The challenge for U.S. agents in this sector amounts to more an administrative than physical one: in the middle of the night handling huge volumes of newcomers, including children, speaking dozens of languages.

The process at the busiest crossing point in Yuma has become so routinized that it resembles an outdoor international arrival hall. There are portable restrooms, crates of bottled water and trash bins where migrants are instructed to toss any personal items that don’t fit into a small plastic bag.

Cubans have been arriving in numbers not recorded since the 1980 Mariel boatlift, and many of those lined up in Yuma announced and narrated their U.S. landing on social media. Others video-chatted with loved ones on WhatsApp. Arizona served as a roundabout way for them to get to Florida, but a much safer one than the sea.

Summer temperatures in Yuma reach 110 degrees during the day and remained close to 90 well past midnight. The group of men from India who ran to the wall remained in tight formation, sweating profusely in puffy coats and cold-weather gear. “Punjab,” several said when asked where they were from, shaking their heads at questions about how they’d arrived and why they’d left India.

A Colombian man, Ronald Lopez, arrived panting and dizzy, aided by his wife, Diana, and son, Samuel, 9, who was wearing a New York Yankees cap. The family got lost in the brush along the river, Lopez said, and his diabetes triggered a low-blood-sugar episode. He collapsed against the border wall.


A young Brazilian ahead of him in line who said he had medical training appeared with a jar of Nutella. Lopez scooped out the sticky hazelnut spread with his fingers and gulped it down with bottled water set out by the Border Patrol.

“Papi, it’s all right, you’ll be OK,” Samuel said, hugging his father as both cried. “We made it. We’re in the United States. This is your dream.”

Lopez said he worked at a car dealership in Bogotá, but his wife had felt unsafe back home. A friend in New York with a cookware business needed a new salesman. So the family flew to Cancún.

A Mexican immigration agent threatened to deport them, Lopez said, but let them through for $600. They caught another flight to Tijuana, where he said police along the highway took the rest of the family’s cash, more than $1,000.

“We’re making this sacrifice for a better life,” Lopez said. “Things in Colombia are very hard.”

Of the 33,326 migrants taken into CBP custody in Yuma in May, about 3.5% were expelled under the Title 42 policy, the lowest figure anywhere along the border. Mexico generally does not accept the return of non-Mexicans from outside Central America, and migrants who claim a fear of harm if deported are generally bused out of the Yuma area and released into the United States pending a court hearing.


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Agents in Yuma have encountered migrants from 109 countries so far this year, according to CBP figures.

Some, but not all, submit formal applications for asylum in the United States. U.S. immigration courts rarely grant asylum, but the adjudication process typically takes several years. During that time applicants are allowed to live and work in the United States, and the odds they will face arrest and deportation if denied are low, government statistics show.

After CBP processing in Yuma, some migrants are transported to the Casa Alitas Welcome Center in Tucson, operated by Catholic Community Services in a former juvenile detention center brightened by cheerful décor.

Sanjay Salim Chodry arrived at an intake area with his wife and two young children after a 10,000-mile journey from Gujarat, India. The family flew to Turkey, then Cuba and El Salvador before traversing Mexico and arriving in Yuma, Chodry said.

Shelter staff handed his family plates of pasta and vegetables. “No meat, right?” he asked, making sure the food was vegetarian.

“Everything in India is too expensive,” he said. “America is the number-one superpower.”


The shelter offered COVID screenings, meals, Wi-Fi access and travel coordination so migrants could purchase plane and bus tickets to their U.S. destinations. Director Teresa Cavendish said the number of migrants arriving from the border had dipped in June as summer temperatures rose.

“There’s a lull right now, but it won’t last,” she said. “I think there are still a lot of people waiting to see how the administration will respond if Title 42 is not lifted.”

The Biden administration attempted to lift Title 42 in May, but a federal court blocked the move, ordering the administration to keep the policy in place.

In the Tucson sector, about 74% of the 25,923 CBP arrests in May ended with an expulsion under Title 42, one of the highest rates along the border.

Tucson also has some of the largest numbers of “gotaway” incidents in which a border crosser is detected entering illegally but not taken into custody, according to CBP. The agency is recording about 1,000 such cases per day border-wide, according to a senior official who was not authorized to share the unpublished figures.

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The push-and-pull factors that fuel migration have become powerfully aligned since President Joe Biden took office. The pandemic, a sputtering global economy and myriad conflicts around the world are driving people to leave their homes in search of better lives; U.S. labor demand, an overburdened American asylum system and the Biden administration’s reputation for permissiveness serve as draws.


Republicans have been pounding the president’s border record ahead of the November midterm elections, and the deaths discovered in San Antonio in late June of 53 migrants being transported in a truck lacking adequate air or water — the deadliest human smuggling case in U.S. history — brought new waves of partisan blame.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a $564 million spending bill this week to add more barriers and detection technology along the border, while also boosting assistance to local law enforcement agencies. In May, Ducey began sending busloads of migrants from Arizona to Washington, D.C. — if they volunteer for a ride — following a similar initiative started by Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

Polls show immigration and border management are among Biden’s worst-rated issues, and video footage of the crossings in Yuma are featured in Republican ads.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and other Biden officials say they plan to ramp up criminal prosecutions for illegal reentry, the enforcement tool used by CBP in the past primarily to deter Mexican migrants.

The court ruling extending Title 42 does not preclude the Biden administration from referring repeat offenders to U.S. attorneys. Officials did not provide information about the number of such cases the agency has referred for prosecution in recent months.

In interviews, CBP officials praised Mexican authorities for boosting enforcement along the south side of the border. But scouts working for smuggling organizations were visible on the hillsides above Nogales on a recent afternoon, brazenly directing the timing and location of crossing attempts.


Frustrated Border Patrol agents in Yuma said they were watched by smugglers on the Mexican side, too. Every time agents finished processing one large group and loaded them onto vans, a new group would arrive, as if the smugglers were staggering flights like air traffic controllers.

A young family from Russia arrived with a 4-year-old daughter they said was a U.S. citizen, born in Miami. There were four men from an extended family in Venezuela who shared photos of their grueling five-day jungle trek through Panama’s Darien Gap.

“I leave a hard life behind,” said Philipe Adeichvilli, who said he worked as a police officer in his hometown of Kutaisi, Georgia. “I think in USA my life will not be in danger.” He was headed for New Jersey.

Chris Clem, the Border Patrol chief in Yuma, said despite the record volume of migrants arriving to the sector, U.S. agents have kept the process moving quickly. CBP cellphones are loaded with new facial recognition software that scans identification documents and uploads the information to intake files on agency servers, not unlike the formal process at official ports of entry.

On the opposite side of the border wall in Yuma, a young man who said his name was Alfredo lingered just out of view from the agents, scavenging. He said he crosses the border every night to pick through discarded backpacks, shoes and clothing, searching for items of value.

“I find money all the time,” he said. “Mexican pesos. They don’t want them anymore.”

Alfredo said he lost his job as a dental assistant in the Mexican border town of Los Algodones during the pandemic, when people stopped crossing over for crowns and fillings. U.S. agents don’t bother him as long as he stays on the other side of the wall, he said.

“There’s no work in my town anymore,” he said. “Only smugglers.”