Drive west 100 miles from Tucson, Ariz., across the rugged and mountainous Sonoran Desert, and Highway 86 starts getting more potholed and narrow as you get close to the old copper mining town of Ajo.
Here, off the historic Ajo Plaza with its ornate Spanish colonial buildings, a pair of white U.S. Border Patrol vans pulls into a dusty alley, already hot even on an early April afternoon.
Two agents hop out, slide open the doors, and families with children pile out. They look exhausted and stressed. One woman limps as she picks up her suitcase and a plastic bag with bed sheets. A volunteer with an ad hoc group of local humanitarians then quickly ushers them inside a small gym they've converted to an improvised shelter, where they're handed water and told where they are.
Most have no idea. They've just been released from detention.
"Border Patrol drops them off here in town, where else can they go?" asks Jose Castillo, who's helping as an interpreter. "It's like me taking you all the way to China, drop you in the middle of town, what are you gonna do?"
In one corner of the room, a greeter explains to the group of 15 migrants now assembled at tables that they'll first need a COVID-19 test. The U.S. government is reportedly only testing people in detention who show symptoms. Volunteers can be seen donning PPE to get ready to administer those while the families, most of whom look middle class, sit at tables filling out paperwork.
One woman and her young son are literally just getting reunited with their confiscated belts and shoelaces. The young boy tries to lace his shoes while his mom, crying, makes her first phone call in days letting a loved one know they're safe.
All of this is the immediate aftermath of a controversial practice known as "rural releases" that the U.S. government began doing in the borderlands last month.
The Border Patrol, which did not respond to NPR's requests for an on the record interview, says the pandemic is limiting how many people they can safely hold at nearby facilities. Officials say funding and jurisdiction issues are also mostly preventing them from transporting migrants to cities. So in practice, that means migrants who do qualify for potential asylum and can prove they have sponsors in the U.S. are just being dropped in rural Arizona towns like Ajo that are close to overflowing Border Patrol facilities.
There is no public transportation here, let alone even a local government. Ajo is unincorporated. So for now, the burden is mostly on private donors and volunteers like Castillo.
"When somebody needs help, that's what we're here for," Castillo says. The 82-year-old has spent most of his life in Ajo, working at the copper mine until it closed in 1983. His family lived on both sides of the border where migrants have crossed for generations, he says, looking for work or fleeing bad situations in their home countries.
Border apprehensions up
The number of people U.S. authorities are taking into custody at the southern border is on pace to set records. More than 170,000 migrants were nabbed illegally crossing the border in March, the highest monthly total since 2006.
Most are being sent back to Mexico, unless they're unaccompanied children, or in some cases families like these from countries like Cuba or Venezuela. That's because the Mexican authorities are refusing to take back migrants that aren't from Central America.
If it sounds confusing and messy, that's because it is, says Regina Romero, the mayor of Tucson.
"We are dealing with the effects of the previous four years of the Trump administration's policy of cruelty and chaos," Romero says.
Romero's parents were farm workers and is the city's first Hispanic mayor in more than a century. She says the former President Donald Trump tried to dismantle the country's immigration and refugee system. She is willing to give President Biden some time to fix things. But local leaders like her say the rural releases aren't fair to the migrants, or the people who live in the remote Sonoran towns.
The mayor of Gila Bend, Arizona declared a state of emergency last month over the issue.
"What is not acceptable is for Border Patrol to drop off asylum seekers and individuals and many times children without taking them to a particular location where we have a process," Romero says.
Indeed, there is a process in Tucson, that began in 2014 under similar circumstances when the U.S. government began dropping off would-be asylum seekers and others in local parks. Churches and humanitarians ended up setting up a shelter called the Casa Alitas Welcome Center, where migrants could stay temporarily while they arranged for travel to reach family sponsors in other states while they awaited court dates.
Casa Alitas, housed in a converted juvenile detention facility south of downtown, has seen an uptick in guests in recent weeks, according to its program manager, Diego Javier Pena Lopez. Volunteers with a Catholic non-profit along with Pima County are now scrambling to send vans to towns like Ajo when they hear about Border Patrol drop offs.
"It's obviously so challenging and concerning that we have to be prepping in this way," Pena Lopez says. "The possibility is we could see rural releases start tomorrow in a new community."
A 'surge' at the U.S.-Mexico border
The Biden administration is saying only that it will open a more official migrant shelter in Tucson in the next month. It also plans to house other migrants in hotels in the Phoenix area. Local governments and aid groups expect they'll get reimbursed, as has been happening after Tucson officials paid to house COVID-19 positive migrants in local hotels recently.
For now, Pena Lopez says things are mostly manageable. He disputes assertions by politicians in Arizona and nationally that there is a "surge" at the U.S. border.
"Walk through this space and you [do] not see us drowning in people," he says. "The exact opposite, you're seeing volunteers organizing, thinking ahead on how to work with these rural communities where people have stacked the deck against us."
That also seems to be the prevailing sentiment back in Ajo. Border towns like this don't feel like they're being overrun. The plaza and its historic train depot is quiet. Local artists have reopened their studios. A few tourists browse the local galleries and eat tacos at a sidewalk cafe.
Since the rural releases began March 18, there hasn't been a single overnight stay by migrants here. And the cadre of volunteers, coordinated by a local environmental and economic development nonprofit, has found a daily rhythm. They get a heads-up text from officials at the local Border Patrol station 10 miles away, then head down to the plaza to help.
It's just not sustainable, says Jose Castillo, the interpreter.
"My way of seeing things, this is not Ajo's problem, this is the government's problem," he says. "They created it, they own it."