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N4T Investigators: Undocumented immigrants released into local rural towns

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AJO, Ariz. (KVOA) - Bus loads of undocumented immigrants are being released into rural communities across Southern Arizona.

About 100 miles west of Tucson is the old copper mining town of Ajo. It is unincorporated, with no city government, but has been one of the main drop sites for Border Patrol to release migrants.

Aaron Cooper is the executive director of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance in Ajo, he said so far at least 600 undocumented immigrants have been released in the community.

“Street releases of migrants is not a new thing, but it’s new for a community like Ajo which is geographically remote," Cooper said.

Cooper organized a group of volunteers that helped process the migrants and gave them food and water as well as a COVID-19 test before being transferred to the better-equipped organizations in Tucson and Phoenix.

He said many of the migrants have been sent to Casas Alitas in Tucson.

“We had about three weeks running of a minimum once a day, sometimes twice a day. Releases and reached about 600 people who came through here," Cooper said.

Cooper said volunteers, like Jose Castillo, would help comfort the migrants while they waited to continue their journey to family sponsors they have in the U.S.

“I saw a gentleman, [in a] family unit crying. To this day, it’s hard for me. When I asked him why he said I reminded him of his dad," Castillo said.

Border Patrol said the pandemic is limiting how many people they can safely hold at nearby facilities, so to make space, they release them. 

Funding and jurisdiction issues are also mostly preventing them from transporting migrants to cities. That's where organizations like the ISDA step in.

Cooper says the resources they use are funded through donations and not the federal government.

We asked Customs and Border Protection if it will be helping cover the cost that these small towns are enduring.

A spokesperson would not give a statement on the record.

In nearby Gila Bend, Mayor Chris Riggs declared a State of Emergency last month because of the drop offs.

"We have no facilities here. We have no shelters. We have no vacant housing. We have no services to be able to assist them," Mayor Riggs said.

He said the drop offs would come at a tremendous cost to the small town.

“We were looking at $600,000 per year. We were seeing 25 to 30 people per day," Mayor Riggs said.

But after sounding the alarm about the issue, Mayor Riggs said the drop-offs in Gila Bend have recently stopped.

At Casas Alitas in Tucson, there are regular busloads of migrants being dropped off from various rural communities.

Program Manager Diego Pena Lopez said they are seeing people from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, Central America and Mexico.

Lopez said the average guest stays between one and three days, waiting for a family sponsor to buy them a bus ticket to just about anywhere in the U.S.

Lopez said they are providing the migrants food, water and a safe comfortable environment during their stay. He said each migrant basically gets their own stylist to find new clothes because many come with just one pair of clothes.

We asked Customs and Border Protection about the rural releases, and a spokesperson sent the following statement:

“The unique challenges of the pandemic require additional authorities, such as the CDC order known as Title 42, to allow DHS to effectively protect both the health and safety of migrants and our communities from the spread of COVID-19. The border is not open, and the vast majority of people are being returned under Title 42."

Cooper said the releases have slowed down in Ajo, but he is ready for them to start picking up again.

FEMA said it has allocated $110 million that can be reimbursed to communities that help support migrants released by CBP.

If you have a story you'd like us to investigate reach out to us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.

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Chorus Nylander

Chorus Nylander is the Chief Investigative Reporter for News 4 Tucson. He is focused on giving the voiceless a voice and holding the powerful accountable.

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