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At Yuma border crossing, authorities see more ‘family units’ taking risks

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seen a sharp rise in the number of families seeking asylum at the southern border. Some walk in on their own and surrender to authorities, while others try to slip past without being noticed. Arizona Public Media's Lorraine Rivera recently joined agents in Yuma for a first-hand look at how they handle the influx of asylum seekers crossing the border.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the debate in Washington over a wall drags on, border patrols and immigrant crossings continue, with a rise in the number of families asking for legal asylum over the last year.

    From Arizona Public Media in Tucson, Lorraine Rivera recently went out with Customs and Border Protection to get a first-hand look at how officers are handling the influx of immigrants.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    Our ride with Yuma Sector Border Patrol begins before sunrise. Agent Jose Garibay is showing us an area along the Colorado river.

  • Jose Garibay:

    So, we're about a half-mile from the border.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    We're here because the area has seen more large groups of Central American immigrants walk past this vehicle barrier fencing and surrender to federal agents. The agency refers to this tactic as give-ups.

  • Jose Garibay:

    There are so many different reasons why an individual or smuggling organization may choose to cross here. It may be because the smuggling organization that's operating in those Central American countries own certain routes to this area, and that they know it works, and it's a proven tactic.

    So, for them, why would they change something that isn't broken?

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    This past November, agents apprehended nearly 5,800 family units in the Yuma sector. Last year in November, the number was under 2,000. That's nearly three times the number of apprehensions as a year ago.

  • Jose Garibay:

    We're seeing activity at all times of the day. There's no specific popular time frame. It's just whenever these smugglers that are taking these families up from Central America, smuggling them over to San Luis, then up here. It's — we're on their timeline. They know that we're here 24/7.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    On this particular morning, along this portion of the border, no one crosses. Agent Garibay drives us south into San Luis. We see the new modes of enforcement that includes concertina wiring surrounding the port of entry.

    Agent Garibay says Yuma recently received 50 additional Border Patrol agents to help with the increased arrests. Farther east, we see different styles of fencing, and reminders that this border has had security measures in place for a very long time, Vietnam era landing mats, steel bollards and a secondary fence referred to as expanded steel that's 18-feet-tall.

    Agent Garibay says crossing the border has always been dangerous, but it's becoming riskier.

  • Jose Garibay:

    A 14-year-old child attempted to breach the wall with her mother and four other individuals. And during the process, she actually fell backwards off of the border wall and broke multiple vertebrae in her back in the process.

    Once you see those individuals crossing over the border wall, there's not much you can do to stop it. You can't go up to them and tell them, you have to go back. You can't physically force them to go back. So all we can do is just anticipate what's going to happen next.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    This surveillance video from November shows smugglers dropping small children over the wall.

  • Jose Garibay:

    We want to advise these individuals that are thinking about coming to the United States, go through the proper channels. Don't put your family through a dangerous situation, such as this, where something like this could happen.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    Garibay says added security measures have pushed people further out into areas where it's easier to cross.

  • Jose Garibay:

    Specifically referring to the Colorado River area, where we have vehicle barriers and things that only stand about four-to-four-and-a-half-feet high and are designed to stop vehicles from traversing illegally into the United States, and not necessarily family units who are pouring over the border by the hundreds in some cases.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    From here, we drive back to the Colorado River area. On the road, we listen to radio traffic talking about a group of nine people who just surrendered to agents.

  • Man:

    Yes, go ahead.

  • Man:

    I just picked up nine.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    And as soon as we park along the levee, we see first-hand what Agent Garibay described earlier, a young couple carrying a child who crossed a vehicle barrier and walked directly into Border Patrol custody.

  • Jose Garibay:

    So, these three individuals, one was a father, a mother, 2, the child that they were traveling with. He said that he was 18 years old.

    She stated that she was in her early 20s and that the child was 2 years old and that they have been traveling for approximately two months to come to the United States from Honduras.

    They didn't say specifically where they were heading, but she did say that she had a grandmother currently in the United States in Kentucky. So, presumably, they could be traveling there or elsewhere.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    The agents begin the family's immigration process. Within minutes, another agent arrives to transport them to the Yuma station, where they will be evaluated, fed and questioned.

    Then, minutes later, less than 100 yards from us, a group of Central Americans approach agents after crossing the same stretch of vehicle barrier.

  • Jose Garibay:

    In this specific group, we had 29 illegal aliens; 26 of them were Guatemalan nationals, and the other three were Honduran. And we actually had 14 children here.

    Many of these individuals come with documents pre-prepared, some in Ziploc baggies. They will have identifications photocopied, so they will just have a paper of it. They will have their birth certificates.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    How likely are these families, if they are who they say they are, to stay together while they're in your custody?

  • Jose Garibay:

    During the investigative process, we're going to ask and make sure that they're families.

    And families, they will be put together based on if the single males — the single males will be put together, single females. And we want to make sure that all these individuals are safe while in our custody. And we want to make sure that these individuals don't have criminal history or other things that could harm the citizens of the United States.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    In December, two children died while in the custody of Border Patrol in New Mexico and Texas. The week following our tour, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen visited the Yuma station.

    CBP has since deployed medical units from the Coast Guard to the southern border to ensure children receive at least two health screenings.

  • Jose Garibay:

    We take special consideration into small children and making sure that they're safe, because, ultimately, we don't want anybody to die in their journey into the United States.

    So, we have taken all kinds of different precautions in order to help make sure that they're safe when they're — when they're in our custody.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    I ask if these individuals will be treated any differently than those at the ports of entry.

  • Jose Garibay:

    If they are looking for asylum or do claim credible fear, then they have crossed illegally into the United States, and that is a crime.

    The individuals that are waiting down at the port of entry are doing it the proper way and waiting in line in order to be processed by customs officials. So these individuals, that will be notated in their file, and they will be transferred into the custody of ICE ERO.

    We treat all individuals in our custody the same. And that is with respect, as human beings.

  • Lorraine Rivera:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lorraine Rivera in Yuma, Arizona.

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