In a remote place in the Arizona desert, near a hole in the border wall, dozens of migrants huddled over wood fires.
After fleeing war in Sudan, violent gangs in Central America, or Mexican cartels, the men had all entered the United States illegally, walked for hours over rugged terrain, and arrived at this outpost exhausted, hungry, and cold.
They wanted to present themselves to the authorities to ask for asylum, but they were stuck here, kilometers away from the nearest town, Sásabe.
Then, as the temperature dropped Tuesday night, a convoy of Border Patrol agents arrived, loaded the men into a van for processing and sped away to find other people in need of rescue.
“We are not equipped to deal with this situation,” said Scott Carmon, a Border Guard commander, as he surveyed the muddy encampment. “It’s a humanitarian disaster.”
This is the crisis unfolding at the southern border, as migrant encounters once again reach record levels and test the ability of American law enforcement to contain an explosion of illegal crossings with far-reaching repercussions for the administration Biden.
Thousands of migrants arrive at the border every day, traveling from the farthest reaches of the globe, from Africa to Asia to South America, driven by relentless violence, desperation and poverty.
In May, the Biden administration briefly celebrated the decline in border crossings, even after pandemic-era border restrictions were lifted and many feared the floodgates would open. But the numbers have risen in recent months, prompting sharp criticism from both parties and fears within the administration that the issue could damage Democrats’ electoral future.
Last week, the number of apprehensions reached more than 10,000 a day, straining Border Patrol resources and overwhelming small towns on both sides of the border, where people have been funneled by smugglers consolidating new routes to escape capture by US authorities.
“In terms of migrants per day, December 2023 is the highest number of any average that we have ever seen,” said Adam Isacson, a migration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Every official who comments on the story, at all levels, says he is close to or has passed the breaking point.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and other top officials traveled to Mexico on Wednesday to discuss the migration spike with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as American officials tracked a new caravan of more than 2,000 migrants moving north across the country to the United States. .
The caravan is unlikely to reach the United States, experts say, but it has drawn media attention to the flood of migrants who have already crossed the border en masse.
Mexico has been a tough enforcer of U.S. border restrictions, detaining record numbers of migrants this year, government data shows. But in December, the National Migration Institute, a government agency, suspended deportations of migrants from the country due to a lack of funding, according to an official institute that was not authorized to speak publicly.
Experts and officials are still trying to understand exactly what is behind the recent wave of migration.
Among the leading theories: greater numbers of Mexicans appearing to be fleeing cartel battles across the country; rumors about the end of a key legal path that may have prompted a rush to cross; and the smugglers who drove desperate people of all nationalities to try to enter increasingly remote parts of the border.
“If you move to an extremely remote place, there won’t be many officers on staff and that will increase your chances of being released into the United States,” Isacson said. “There’s nowhere to put people. “They can’t hold you.”
On Tuesday, Izzeddin, a 32-year-old Sudanese migrant, was among a dozen men from his homeland at the Arizona encampment. He sipped sugary coffee provided by a humanitarian group, No More Deaths, which has helped keep migrants alive with blankets, food and emergency calls to deal with life-threatening injuries.
“We came here because we need protection,” said Izzeddin, who asked to be identified only by his first name, fearing retaliation against his family.
A raging civil war in Sudan has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including these men, who said they have lost family members and left loved ones in refugee camps to travel to the United States.
In Sudan, Izzeddin said, “we saw people killed and raped.” He and his companions, he said, were all waiting for one thing: “the Border Patrol will come get us and give us protection.”
Often, migrants who arrive in the United States and ask for asylum – protection from political or other persecution at home – do not actually receive an evaluation of their claims upon arrival. Because of the limited capacity to detain people at the border, many are instead released by a set court date for a judge to evaluate their cases. The process can take years.
In Arizona, border officials closed a major port of entry to legal crossings in early December to focus on illegal ones.
Mr. Carmon, the Border Patrol guard commander, called for more resources. “Give us more help, give us FEMA,” he said.
Last week, No More Deaths workers evacuated migrants caught in a storm to a nearby Border Patrol facility, a spokesperson for the group said.
“If we had a flooded city and people needed to be evacuated, they would drive the National Guard trucks, those big cattle trucks, and put our citizens in them,” Carmon said. “Why they’re not down here helping us get these people safe and warm, I don’t know.”
For Izzeddin, being exposed to the desert elements was much safer than staying in Sudan.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s cold,” he said. “There is peace here.”
Hamed Aleaziz AND Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City.