The U.S. Border Patrol has been detaining asylum-seekers outdoors in a deadly corner of the Arizona desert for the better part of a year — significantly longer than was previously known — according to photos, video, and interviews conducted by The Intercept. The practice was one of several described by concerned officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, who say that their agency is a flouting a federal court order mandating the humane treatment of migrants.
In July, amid a lethal and record-setting heatwave, The Intercept captured photos of roughly 50 migrants caged in an outdoor pen at the Border Patrol’s Ajo Station, deep in the Sonoran Desert two hours west of Tucson. The high temperature that day was 114 degrees. According to CBP officials who are based in the state and have direct knowledge of the situation, the caging was no isolated incident: Supervisors at the remote station have been using the pen, as well as other exposed areas, since at least last winter to detain large numbers of people in extreme cold as well as extreme heat.
“This has been going on for a long time,” one of the officials told The Intercept. “Management is forcing us to violate these things that they should have — basic human necessities.”
Since 2020, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector has been under a “permanent injunction” following a class-action lawsuit revealing that migrants, including women and children, in custody in Southern Arizona were systematically held in deplorable conditions. Under the injunction, the Border Patrol is legally obligated to provide anyone in custody for more than 48 hours with a bed and blanket, showers, adequate food, potable water, medical assessments, and more. Agents sign paperwork acknowledging that they have read and will abide by the order.
In a moment of dire humanitarian need, CBP’s use of the outdoor pen reflects deeper problems at the Border Patrol’s Ajo outpost, the officials said, one that’s rooted in a lack of foresight or acknowledgment of the life-or-death urgency inherent in the desert. In July alone, the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner, whose remit is within the Tucson Sector’s jurisdiction, cataloged the recovery of 44 sets of migrant remains in Southern Arizona — the third highest monthly total in a decade and a half — including 22 people who died a day before being found.
The CBP officials interviewed by The Intercept recounted the same specifics and timing of the detention conditions at the Ajo Border Patrol station. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press. To corroborate their claims, the sources provided photos and video of conditions both from within the station and on the border itself. The Intercept is withholding publication of those images, which feature the faces of scores of people — including men, women, and children — to protect their privacy.
The CBP officials stressed that by failing to provide the humanitarian resources needed for an influx of asylum-seekers, the Border Patrol has made it impossible for agents in Arizona to abide by the federal injunction mandating the humane treatment of noncitizens in U.S. custody.
“What we’re doing now is a disgrace,” one official said. “We need full-blown infrastructure down here. We need mobile command centers and tents and air conditioning and caregivers and EMTs down on the border.” They added: “If we got an EMT on shift, we’re lucky. There’s just nothing being flooded in.”
“These people should have warmth in the wintertime and shade, at the very least, in the summertime.”
CBP did not respond to a list of questions from The Intercept concerning conditions at the Ajo station.
While apprehensions have recently dipped elsewhere on the border, that has not been the case in Arizona, where the Tucson Sector has become the busiest in the nation — not to mention the most lethal. In July, agents in Southern Arizona recorded nearly 34,000 apprehensions: a 28 percent increase compared to last year. Tucson Sector Deputy Chief Justin DeLaTorre told local outlet AZPM News that while most 2022 apprehensions involved single adult men, this year, nearly half are families. DeLaTorre added that roughly 80 percent of the people taken into custody turn themselves in — typically to seek asylum, a right enshrined under domestic and international law, including for those who cross the border without authorization.
“If you’re taking people into custody, you’re the custodians. You’re taking away their ability to protect themselves, the ability to provide for themselves. You are accepting that you are going to do that, and they believe you’re going to do that,” one official who spoke to The Intercept said. “These people should have warmth in the wintertime and shade, at the very least, in the summertime.”
The denial of either was “reprehensible,” they said, and yet, that’s precisely what’s been happening.
“Deprived of Basic Human Necessities”
Border Patrol supervisors at the Ajo station began using an outdoor pen to cage asylum-seekers last winter, the officials said, when nighttime temperatures plummeted to near freezing. Initially, the pen included a tent. Men, women, and children would cram themselves on top of one another for warmth, while others huddled together and shivered outside. The tent was soon disassembled, however, because agents could not see inside. People were left to fend for themselves against the elements.
“A lot of these guys, they don’t have jackets. They don’t have cold-weather gear,” the first official said. On certain shifts, agents were directed to take the jackets people did have and replace them with Mylar emergency blankets.
“Can you imagine?” the official asked. “We’re stripping them of their jackets and their hoodies in December, January, February, and then we’re handing them a Mylar blanket and telling them, ‘There you go. Hang out outside.’ Because somebody believes that these families from India are going to stab us through their jacket or something insane.”
In time, some asylum-seekers developed a preference for heavy-duty garbage bags over the Mylar blankets and would wrap themselves in those instead. “That’s the kind of laughable thing about the brilliance of the Border Patrol, or the stupidity,” the official said, “is they actually created a situation where now you need an emergency blanket. You’re now in an emergency, and the only thing they’re going to give you is an emergency blanket. This just keeps going on and on with stuff like this.”
Throughout the winter, the number of people in the pen would swell into the hundreds, added the second CBP official. The station set up an outdoor heater, but it did little good. The pen is “totally exposed to the desert air,” the official said. “Unless you are sitting directly in front of the heater, you’re not going to get warm. So that’s when you start to see all these aliens sitting out there, huddled up and they’re shivering, which is a bunch of bullshit.”
Day and night, as winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer, asylum-seekers cycled through the pen. “The thing that drove me crazy was the fact that it’s a rock area,” said a CBP official. “It’s fucking gravel, and it’s fairly hefty gravel. It’s not even fine gravel. They just gotta lay in there. It’s insane.”
Given the rough ground and the scalding rocks, cushioning of any kind was in high demand among migrants. The scarps of cardboard that agents use to pass out food became a valued commodity. “I’ve literally seen guys get into these squabbling fights over the cardboard,” the official said. “It’s wild.”
An arch over the pen provided a strip of shade that moved with the sun, hardly enough to provide relief to the swelling crowds. “Most of the shade that it provides gets cast way outside that fenced-in area,” the official said. “So they just get hit with the sunlight.”
Following The Intercept’s publication of photos depicting the pen last month, the Border Patrol stretched a shade cloth over the enclosure and hung white sheeting around its perimeter.
“It just blows my mind that it took all winter and damn near half the summer just to go out there and just lay a tarp across that outdoor pen,” one CBP official said. The Ajo station has ample shaded area for Border Patrol vehicles, they noted. “How come all these vehicles are getting fucking shade, but these migrants don’t?” the official asked. “Who cares if the paint fades or if the car’s really hot to get into?” they said. The material damage to a truck, they argued, would pale in comparison to the loss of human life due to heat stroke.
“How come all these vehicles are getting fucking shade, but these migrants don’t?”
According to the officials who spoke to The Intercept, some agents were fine with the outdoor caging, making comments like, “That’s what they get for coming here illegally.” That indifference was not universal. “They have normal rights just like any other person,” said one official. “You can’t just take them and just have them out there shivering all fucking night in the dark.” A second official agreed. “I don’t like seeing people freeze,” they said. “I don’t care how they got here.”
“There’s a lot of people that are really pissed off about what’s going on,” they added. “We’re all actually in shock. It’s kind of like a bad relationship. You think you’re going to come to work the next day and things will be a little better, and they never are.”
The growing numbers of asylum-seekers turning themselves in, the clear commands of the federal injunction that agents vowed to uphold, and the plainly dangerous conditions at the station became a subject of concern at muster, the routine pre-shift meetings where the rank and file receive their marching orders from station supervisors.
Agents wanted to know who signed off on plans to detain people outside and how those plans were consistent with the injunction they swore to follow. “The personal liability risk is real,” one official said. “And there’s nobody answering these questions.”
The official noted that the court order pertains to indoor detention practices. “I don’t know if any of this stuff is OK for outside detention,” they said. The injunction specifically calls for CBP’s comportment with detention industry standards, they added, and prohibits the depravation of basic human necessities. “They’re kept outside in a cage with no shade. No walls. On a rock ground,” the official said. “I’m pretty sure they’re being deprived of basic human necessities.”
“A Disaster in There”
Despite the concerns raised by agents, supervisors at the Ajo station stayed the course amid deadly heat and, more recently, torrential monsoon rains.
While individual experiences may vary, it is not uncommon for asylum-seekers, particularly men, to spend hours exposed to the elements, the officials told The Intercept.
“They’d probably be there for anywhere from a few hours, up to a whole damn day,” said one. “They’d definitely be out there overnight. They’d get there at like noon to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and they probably wouldn’t fuckin’ leave there until sunup the next day.”
The pen has a music festival-style outdoor sink and porta-potties, though the latter is far from sanitary. “Sometimes you can’t even get within like 15 feet, or you’ll fucking throw up — I mean not literally, but you’ll start gagging,” said one official. “And these people got to go take a dump in there.” Another official added: “I’ve never seen outhouses with water that close to spilling over with shit and piss. They can’t get the company to come and clean them daily.”
“I’ve never seen outhouses with water that close to spilling over with shit and piss.”
Conditions inside the station are similarly grim. “It’s a disaster in there,” one CBP official said. “They’re overcrowded to the point where they can’t give them all mats.”
The provision of mats is one of the requirements of the injunction against CBP. Prohibitions on overcrowding and sleeping on or near toilets are also listed.
“I’ve seen the cells so full that people are literally laying shoulder to shoulder, head to toe next to somebody else, and they’re all wrapped in Mylar blankets,” one CBP official said. “When you see so many people wrapped in Mylar blankets that the whole floor looks like a mirror, that’s an issue. And it goes all the way back into the toilets sometimes. They’re sleeping back in and around the toilet areas.”
Medical assessments are also required under the court order. There too, the officials said, CBP is failing to meet its obligations under the law.
The problem stems from a sea change in the demographics of asylum-seekers in recent years, from almost entirely Spanish speakers hailing from a predictable roster of Latin American nations, to people from all over the world arriving by the hundreds in large groups every day.
“Any day of the week you’re encountering at least five different languages, sometimes up to maybe 10,” one official said. “There’s no way to accurately do the medical questionnaires. You can’t possibly have 600 people at the station with another 300 waiting to come in and do medical questionnaires for people in seven different languages.”
The large numbers and the linguistic diversity create a processing bottleneck, they said, as does a lack of familiarity with the U.S. intake system among asylum-seekers themselves. While a Mexican or Honduran asylum-seeker — thanks to the experiences of loved ones or acquaintances in years past — may know that the Border Patrol will seize their personal items and pack accordingly, an asylum-seeker from India, China, or Cameroon, may not.
“These are groups that are coming with full suitcases,” the official said. “It’s like you’re going through their dresser drawer.”
Like the seasons of Southern Arizona, fluctuation in global migration trends can be planned for with a bit of effort, but in the case of the Ajo station, that clearly hasn’t happened.
“It’s foreseeable stuff,” the CBP official said. “They knew this was coming. They knew it was out there. They said, ‘There’s all these people waiting to get in.’ And it’s like, OK, where’s the tents? Where’s the plan? Where’s the cohesion?”
“Time in Detention Is Being Skewed”
Outside the walls of the Ajo station, on the border itself, conditions are even more dire.
Large numbers of asylum-seekers arrive at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, two large tracts of public land that run along the border. Guided by smugglers in Mexico, they appear at all hours of the day but especially at night. A photo shared by the chief of the Tucson Sector earlier this month purported to show the largest of several groups detained one weekend, compromised of more than 500 people from 17 different countries.
How such groups are received can vary widely, one CBP official explained. “From one shift to the next, nobody knows what the hell they’re doing,” they said. “There’s no coordinated effort most of the time.”
Some agents will order asylum-seekers to stay where they are until vehicles can pick them up, others will encourage them to turn back. “There’s a rift in the station,” the official said of the divided approach.
For large groups, the wait at the border often takes hours, and the time is spent in some of the most remote and deadliest terrain in North America. “There’s no tents. There’s no shelter. There’s nothing out there for them,” the official said. “You would think the Border Patrol would have a designated guy bringing water down there. That doesn’t always happen. One shift might, but the next shift might not, so they can be down there without water for a long time.”
Given the lethality of the landscape, some agents are inclined to implore asylum-seekers, particularly men, who are likely to wait the longest, to leave. “Get the heck out of here — don’t wait here in the desert to die,” the official said, describing the sentiment of what agents might tell the men. “But not everybody believes that.”
The encounters at the border create yet another concern when it comes to CBP’s injunction. While the order pertains to actions the agency is required to take after a person has been in custody for 48 hours, people are often being told to stay put by U.S. government officials for many hours — in some cases, up to a day or more — without any resources, but that time isn’t being counted as official “detention.”
“The time in detention is being skewed,” the official said. “They don’t start the clock the moment they’re encountered and detained.”
It is just one more example of the system breaking down, they argued, and failing vulnerable people caught in a dangerous situation. “I think a lot of these people probably have a legitimate claim to asylum,” the official said. “There’s a lot of reason to believe that.”
The dozens of human remains found in the Arizona desert last month were a fraction of the more than 4,000 the medical examiner in Tucson has logged in the past two-and-a-half decades, which are themselves a fraction of the unknowable total of lives lost across the border in recent years. In the face of that grim reality, people keep coming from more and more places around the world. The U.S. government, meanwhile, appears unwilling to adapt with the times.
“It’s just completely unmanageable,” said the CBP official. “I know that the border has been open, wide open, for a long time, but as far as the humanity of what we’re seeing with these people, I never seen anything like it.”
“We can bring eight buses down there, but the smugglers are just going to bring eight semi-trailers full of people,” they said. “At some point, there has to be acknowledgment that we do not have the resources to do this humanely.”