When a Border Closure Hits Americans

By admin Dec19,2023

Puerto Peñasco was once a sleepy fishing village in the Mexican state of Sonora. But, beginning in the nineteen-nineties, developers built it up as an affordable vacation town, marketing it to Americans for its proximity to the border with Arizona. These days, Puerto Peñasco—or Rocky Point, as some Arizonans call it—is dotted with condos and beach resorts catering to residents of Tucson and Phoenix, which are both about four hours away. Americans sometimes refer to it, possessively, as “Arizona’s beach.” South of the border, the highway leading there is dotted with reassuring English-language signs declaring the area to be a no-hassle zone. “You see people taking their dogs down there, driving their R.V.s,” Melissa del Bosque, a co-founder of “The Border Chronicle,” a newsletter focussed on the U.S.-Mexico border, said. “When you walk around, people are selling Viagra and cheap liquor—all the things you’ll find in a border town catering to Americans.”

In early December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that the port of entry in Lukeville, Arizona, the most convenient crossing point for Puerto Peñasco, would be closed indefinitely, and its agents would be reassigned to help process the influx of migrants. Arizonans who wanted to visit their beach condos in Mexico now had to cross at other entry points, all of which entailed a longer—and potentially more dangerous—route. The news caused an immediate uproar. Some Arizonans interpreted the closure as evidence of a mismanaged Southern border. “So, it’s okay for druggies and sex predators to walk into the US, but not okay for Arizonans to get into Mexico to maintain the houses and condos they own and rent out?” a woman posted in the Rocky Point Mexico Friends Facebook group. “The border is Not Secure, and the border is apparently only closed for Americans!” another woman wrote. Right-wing news channels showed lines of migrants near Lukeville: Fox News sent a reporter to the area, as did Breitbart. Governor Katie Hobbs and Arizona Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema issued a joint statement, calling the closure “an unacceptable outcome that further destabilizes our border, risks the safety of our communities, and damages our economy by disrupting trade and tourism.”

Some of the conversation around the Lukeville closure has amounted to tantrums over longer commutes to beachfront condos. But the shock was also felt in Mexico, where border towns have yoked their economies to American visitors; Puerto Peñasco, which has about sixty thousand residents, receives two million visitors a year, many of them from Arizona. The Lukeville crossing is also a key access point for members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose members live on both sides of the border. Nélida Barajas, the executive director of CEDO, an environmental nonprofit based in Puerto Peñasco, was shocked by the closure. “We thought it was impossible,” she said, stressing the economic and social interconnectedness of communities on both sides of the border. “We’re so used to going to the U.S. to go shopping, to go to a meeting, to visit someone. And people from the U.S. are so used to coming to Puerto Peñasco. Thinking as a biologist, it’s a permeable membrane, like a cell—there are movements back and forth, from both sides. So this is really an unprecedented situation.”

Ostensibly, the closure was about staffing. For several consecutive months, beginning in July, the C.B.P.’s Tucson sector recorded more migrant encounters than anywhere else on the southern border. Smugglers seemed to be avoiding cartel violence in other parts of Sonora, resulting in large groups of migrants winding up in places like the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, near Lukeville—rural areas with scarce resources, amid potentially dangerous terrain. According to Barajas, Puerto Peñasco’s mayor, Jorge Pivac, has said that Sonoyta—the Mexican town directly across from Lukeville—is seeing as many as seventeen hundred migrants a day, equivalent to some ten per cent of its population. In its announcement, C.B.P. explained that the agents stationed at the Lukeville P.O.E. had been reassigned to apprehend, transport, and process these people.

Understaffing is a major issue at C.B.P.; even as the pace of migrant encounters has doubled in recent years, the number of agents remains roughly the same. But it’s unclear how much of a difference the reassigned Lukeville agents will make; they constitute less than one per cent of the Border Patrol agents assigned to the Tucson sector.

In the lead-up to next year’s election, border-security concerns have become an increasingly salient issue with voters, and the focus on Arizona, a swing state, is intensifying. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has taken bold (and possibly illegal) steps to involve the state in border enforcement, enlisting state troopers and National Guard members to apprehend migrants. In Arizona, the political calculus is more complicated. The once reliably conservative state has been trending blue, recently electing Democrats to fill the governor’s office and both Senate seats for the first time since 1950. The drama in Lukeville is becoming a symbol of border mismanagement that threatens to weaken the Democrats’ already tenuous hold on the state. Last week, Hobbs called for National Guard troops to be deployed and in a letter to Biden about Lukeville she blamed “federal inaction in managing our southern border” for an “unmitigated humanitarian crisis” that “put Arizona’s safety and commerce at risk.”

As the right-wing media has churned out videos stoking the perception of chaos at the border, Democrats have seemed largely afraid to offer an alternative vision of how they are handling asylum, immigration, and security concerns in the Southwest. Shutting down ports of entry is “becoming a political pawn in this intractable debate over the immigration system and asylum. They can’t get it together in Washington. It’s really not being dealt with in any kind of comprehensive and holistic way that will make any kind of difference,” del Bosque told me. “The chaos is not the people coming, it’s the response.”

A C.B.P. spokesman told me that it’s uncertain when the Lukeville crossing will reopen. In Puerto Peñasco, condo owners posted pictures of empty beaches and offered discounted rents. In the desert, migrants lined up in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, waiting to be taken into Border Patrol custody. A port of entry in Eagle Pass, Texas, was partly closed; in San Diego, C.B.P. shut down a pedestrian crossing so that agents could be reassigned to deal with the rising number of migrants. In an atmosphere of political stalemate and in the absence of quick solutions, the Lukeville closure feels less like an aberration and more like a sign of what’s to come: more closed bridges, more long lines, more viral videos of people in the desert, trying to reach a place that makes sense. ♦

By admin

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