Immigrants Flood California’s & Arizona’s Borders – Surprise in San Luis AZ!

This blog post is a departure from our normal fare of cheerful travel stories, but as documenters of what we see in our day-to-day travel lives, it is something we encountered that we believe is worthy of sharing. This is not intended to take a political side or offend anyone.

October 2016 – A few days ago, we crossed the border between the US and Mexico at San Luis, Arizona. We were returning to the fun, small town of San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, for checkups with our dentist and endodontist whose excellent work we describe here.

After quite a few visits to this Mexican border town, we now know it pretty well. We like to make this border crossing by bicycle, because that gives us great transportation around town in Mexico. It also makes it super easy to return back across the border into the US, because bicycles bypass all the lines and go straight to a gate set aside especially for them and for holders of the US Sentri pass.

After wrapping up our dentist appointments, we rode our bikes back to the border to cross back into the US. As we approached the border gate, we stopped dead in our tracks when we saw dozens of people sitting on the sidewalk right outside the US border gate on the Mexican side.

Illegal immigrants waiting in Mexico to cross the border in Arizona


How bizarre! We’ve never seen anyone sitting on the sidewalk in this area before.

Pedestrians always simply walk up to the border crossing gate, show their passports and walk on through into the US. Often there’s a line of people, but everyone stands in the line, rather than sitting on the ground, and the line keeps moving.

These folks appeared to be settled in for a while. They were leaning against the fence in the border crossing zone that separates the US and Mexico. They had hung some blankets up to shade themselves from the intense sunshine, and they had bedding and luggage around them.

What the heck was going on?

800 Undocumented migrants wait to enter the United States in Arizona


Two US border patrol agents in front of the gate asked us for our passports before we even got to the actual US Immigration booth. That was weird too. Usually you present your passport to the agent in the booth, not to agents standing in front of it on the sidewalk.

We asked them who all these people were and what was going on.

“They are from Haiti, Africa, Central America, Asia, even Russia — lots of different countries — and they’re waiting to come into the US,” he told us. “But they don’t have any documentation, so they are waiting for an appointment with an agent.”

He went on to explain that his job was crowd control. Fortunately, this was a quiet crowd. On the other side of the street several Mexican soldiers in camo gear held rifles and stood watch as well.

He told us there has been a huge increase in migrants since last spring, and there had been so many at the San Ysidro/Tijuana crossing in recent months that the area in front of the US border there was quickly turning into a Tent City.

So, the migrants were moving to other, less crowded border towns in Mexico at the California and Arizona ports of entry. More and more were coming to the San Luis port of entry on the Arizona border.

“But this is nothing,” he said, sweeping his hand in the direction of all the people. “You should have seen this place a few days ago.”

721 Illegal immigrants wait to enter the United States in Arizona


We have crossed the border between the US and Mexico many times. We spent the better part of four years cruising Pacific Mexico on our sailboat, and we have crossed the border at least 25 times, by car, on foot, by bicycle and by boat.

We’ve crossed at the massive San Ysidro/Tijuana border crossing south of San Diego, the busiest port of entry in the Western Hemisphere. It resembles a mammoth freeway tollbooth plaza: 25 or so regular booths and perhaps 10 or so other booths for buses, commercial trucks and “Sentri Pass” holders who cross the border frequently.

And we’ve crossed at the smaller border crossings in Tecate (in rural southern California), Nogales (south of Tucson, Arizona), Los Algodones (western Yuma, Arizona), San Luis (south of Yuma, Arizona) and Boquillas del Carmen (at Big Bend National Park in Texas). At sea, we crossed just off the Pacific coast of southern California and northern Baja California, Mexico.

Going into Mexico is always very simple, and when on foot or bicycle, no one ever checks out passports. Returning into the US, however, is always an adventure. The wait in line to get into the US by car is usually at least an hour and is generally closer to two hours. It can be as much as four hours.

771 Undocumented migrants wait to cross from Mexico into the United States in Arizona


The fun thing about this mind-numbing wait in an idling car, creeping along inch by inch, is that entrepreneurial Mexicans make the most of their captive audience. They walk up and down the road between the cars and provide crazy entertainment for tips, and they sell things, from food to cold drinks to trinkets of various kinds.

Crossing into the US from Canada with an RV at Calais, Maine, and Chief Mountain, Montana, in the early morning avoids the lines, but you don’t want to have any fruits or veggies in the RV’s refrigerator!

Sailing across the border from Mexico into the US was quite different. Helicopters buzzed our boat and border patrol boats zoomed out to get a good look at us through binoculars. US Customs and Immigration came down to inspect our passports, boat documents and the boat itself when we tied up at the dock in San Diego.

But we’ve never, ever seen people hanging out on the sidewalks a few feet from the border gates setting up tent cities.

What had brought all these migrants here in such huge numbers? Even the agents themselves expressed shock at what was going on!

Illegal immigrants wait to enter United States from Mexico


Researching things a little bit, we discovered that after the big earthquake in Haiti in 2010, many Haitians moved to Brazil and stayed there for a few years. Many worked in construction-related jobs in the lead up to the 2016 summer Olympics. Unfortunately, Brazil’s economy has gone into a deep recession, so the Haitians began leaving Brazil this past year to come to the US.

It is a long journey to get through all of the Central American countries and Mexico, and without documentation, they can’t cross the borders in these countries legally. So, they pay smugglers to get them from one border to the next. The cost for them to get from Brazil to the US has been estimated to be at least $2,350.

When they reach Mexico’s southern border, many claim they are from Congo or other countries with which Mexico has diplomatic relations. This allows them to get a 20-day permit to remain in Mexico, which gives them enough time to get to the US border and wait for admission.

Illegal aliens wait to cross the border from Mexico into America


Haitians aren’t the only immigrants that are arriving in large numbers. Central Americans, Africans, Asians and others are taking this same route to America’s southwestern borders too.

Apparently 5,000 have arrived, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña says 40,000 more are on their way. This movement of so many people is putting huge pressure on the Central American countries and Mexico as they try to find places to sleep and eat along the way.

Will they be deported?

Would they make this long journey and pay all that money if they knew they had no chance?

People arriving at the US border can ask for asylum. Held in detention for a short time until their request to apply for asylum is approved, they can then file their actual application for asylum.

Once this application for asylum has been filed, they can legally live in the US while their case goes through the court system until they are either granted or denied asylum. The time period is generally three to five years, and if asylum is denied there is an appeals process which allows them to stay longer.

This is different than people who are outside the US that are classified as refugees before they arrive. Both refugees and people granted asylum status are eligible for the same cash and medical benefits.

The Border Patrol agent commented, “The vetting process starts with figuring out if they are actually from the country they say they are from.”

I asked him how they do that. He said he had no idea.

Undocumented migrants waiting to enter the United Sates from Mexico


Coming face to face with “the immigration issue” like this was startling and disturbing, to say the least.

For most of us, it is something that’s happening “over there,” beyond our neighborhood, at least for the moment.

I have wrestled with this post for three long days now, unsure if I should share this tale on my usually very upbeat website.

However, I was shocked that the Arizona Republic (the Phoenix, Arizona, newspaper) hasn’t mentioned a thing about it in their online edition and that the Arizona Daily Star (the Tucson, Arizona, area newspaper) has reported it online only once…two days ago. It doesn’t appear to be on the Arizona TV news networks either.

Many Arizonans are unaware that the state of Arizona is taking in more Syrian refugees per capita that any other state in the union. In raw numbers, it is taking in more refugees than all but two other states, California and Michigan!

I think this story is important for people to know about. So here it is.

More info:

Update – April 16, 2017

After Donald Trump was elected president, things changed dramatically not only for asylum-seeking immigrants at America’s formal ports of entry, like the border crossing (“port of entry”) in San Luis, Arizona, described on this page, but also for illegal immigrants sneaking across the border in between the formal ports of entry.

During the month of October, 2016, when we saw these prospective American immigrants seated on the Mexican side of the border in San Luis as they waited to plead their cases to US authorities, a total of 66,000 “inadmissible” migrants showed up at America’s ports of entry or crossed the border illegally in between.

During the month of March, 2017, the total was down to 16,400, a drop of 75%.

The flow of Haitians into the US dropped from 3,000 in October to 100 in March, a drop of 97%.

Reports in November and December, 2016, indicated that many of the Haitian immigrants were being released in the US to live freely while their cases moved through the courts.

Reports in February and April, 2017, indicated that many of them are remaining in detention centers, are being deported, or are now living in northern Mexico and seeking legal status there so they can remain in Mexico.

Mexico has no plans to change their immigration policies to allow the migrants to stay within their borders.

For those who are unaware, simply obtaining a temporary residency-only visa in Mexico can be challenging. When we decided to upgrade from a standard, automatic 6-month travel visa to a one-year “FM3” non-working residency visa in Mexico in 2010, we had to supply the following:

  • A letter of recommendation from the manager of our marina
  • 6 months of bank statements translated into Spanish showing a minimum income level of $2,000 US per month
  • A set of black and white photos of ourselves that met very stringent hairdo and clothing and size requirements.

It took us several weeks to obtain the visa the first time, including several trips to the immigration office, and it took no small amount of effort to renew it a year later. The Mexican FM3 visa has since changed to a 3-year Residente Permanente – No Inmagrante visa, but the requirements are similar.

Unlike these migrants, we were not seeking to work in Mexico or to stay indefinitely.

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