'That's all we have': Migrants forced to discard belongings at border

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Brenner Bocanegra sat on the slope of a gravel road in the early morning darkness as he held up his phone’s flashlight, creating a collection of intricate shadow puppets for his two weary children watching.

Bocanegra’s wife, Juli Castañeda, held their sleepy 3-year-old daughter as the family rested at the Arizona-Mexico border near Yuma after a weeklong journey from Peru, where they were forced to flee after receiving death threats.

“A lot of suffering, but we’re here,” Bocanegra said, describing his family’s treacherous trip. “It was worth it.” 

As Bocanegra tried to entertain his tired children, more than 350 migrants and asylum seekers gathered in lines nearby, presenting themselves to a handful of Border Patrol agents who worked to process portions of the group.

The large group stood near one of the gaps in the border wall near the Morelos Dam, an area that has become a frequent crossing point for migrants entering the U.S. from Mexico.

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, nearby the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

A small girl laid her head on her pink backpack as she slept on the dirt ground next to her mother who was waiting to be processed into one of the idling Border Patrol vans a short distance away.

Nearby, an elderly man stood in line with the help of a forearm crutch as the 30-foot border fence towered over him.

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As people were loaded into the vans, they left behind an assortment of discarded belongings. Shoes, belts, money and water bottles were scattered on the ground. 

In recent months, advocates have said that Border Patrol agents in Yuma are forcing migrants and asylum seekers to discard the majority of their belongings before they’re taken to the station to be processed.

Advocates have found passports, birth certificates, Bibles, pictures and even a family member’s ashes abandoned on the ground. 

Fernando Quiroz, Yuma resident and director of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition, right, hands water bottles to migrants and asylum seekers waiting to be processed after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis, Arizona, on July 28, 2022.

“Some of these people, this is all they have,” said Fernando Quiroz, director of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition. “They left their country, their family, their friends and what they know to seek a better life.”

Quiroz has a stack of about 15 discarded passports from various countries that he has found during his humanitarian work along the Arizona-Mexico border near Yuma. Migrants are nervous as they’re told to get in line to begin processing and, sometimes, they forget their passports in their backpacks as they’re told to discard the bags, Quiroz said. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona recently raised concerns about Border Patrol agents in Yuma confiscating Sikh asylum-seekers’ turbans, as was first reported by the nonprofit newsroom Arizona Luminaria.

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

In response to questions about discarded migrant belongings, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Rob Daniels said in an emailed statement that “CBP is committed to ensuring alleged misconduct involving CBP employees is thoroughly investigated.”

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection constantly works to ensure that all employees understand and maintain the highest level of professional standards in their interactions with those they apprehend consistent with law enforcement standards of performance and conduct,” Daniels added.

Quiroz acknowledged the capacity and operational limitations that Border Patrol agents face in processing such large groups of people but still underscored the importance of personal belongings to migrants and asylum seekers.  

“I understand where (the Border Patrol) is coming from but a lot of these individuals, that's all they have,” Quiroz said. “Their Bible, photos of their family, their clothing. Some of the things that mean a lot to them.”

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

Over the past year, Quiroz regularly would arrive at the crossing point to find two dumpsters overflowing with migrants’ backpacks and other belongings. But in recent weeks, agents’ have shifted their practices and allowed migrants’ to take their backpacks on the vans to the station, he said.

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The area near the Morelos Dam has become a frequent crossing spot because, in part, of its lower water levels. The decreased levels allow migrants to walk or wade across the Colorado River and present themselves to Border Patrol agents after crossing through the spacious gaps in the border wall.

Under Title 42, a pandemic health policy instituted in March 2020, official ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border are closed to asylum seekers, with few exceptions made through humanitarian parole. 

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

On a typical day, there could be anywhere from 300 to 500 migrants and asylum seekers near the Morelos Dam, Quiroz said. The majority who present themselves to Border Patrol seeking asylum in this area are from Cuba, Colombia, Peru, India, Venezuela and Russia, Quiroz said. 

“These individuals should be allowed to come through our ports of entry,” Quiroz said.

“We shouldn't be putting these individuals' lives in danger as they seek asylum from violence, from war, from crime. Yet, they're forced to take that path.”

Migrants can wait anywhere from one to 12 hours throughout the day, depending on Border Patrol processing times, Quiroz said. Additionally, Border Patrol agents have encountered more than 235,000 migrants in the agency's Yuma Sector, which covers southwestern Arizona and a small portion of California, so far this fiscal year. 

‘That’s all we have’

Serdiukov Iurii said he felt relieved to finally be in the U.S.

Iurii, 30, leaned against the border wall on a recent morning alongside his wife. The pair fled Russia because of the war with Ukraine and waited to present themselves to the Border Patrol to ask for political asylum. 

“We have a problem in our country and we need asylum,” he said. 

As he spoke, Iurii held up a clear plastic bag, measuring roughly 7-by-7 inches, that had been issued to him by Border Patrol agents to fill with his most important belongings. His phone, legal documents, charger, cash and tablet were packed into the bag. 

“That’s all we have,” he said. 

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, nearby the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

Migrants and asylum seekers who are taken into CBP custody usually are required to discard belongings such as backpacks and any extra food or clothing they may have.

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Any personal belongings that are discovered during apprehension or processing, which are not deemed contraband, will be safeguarded, itemized and documented, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention and Search document. 

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

If a migrant in custody is transferred within CBP, agents will transfer their personal property with them whenever feasible. If a migrant is transferred to another agency, repatriated or released, agents will “make every effort” to transfer their personal property with them.

“If personal property cannot be transferred with the detainee, CBP will generally hold personal property for a minimum of 30 days from the processing of a detainee,” the document says. “After 30 days personal property will be considered abandoned and may be destroyed.”

The document goes on to say special attention must be given to the security and return of a migrant’s monetary personal property. All medications generally will be maintained with the migrant’s personal property, unless the medication needs to be regularly taken or needs to be properly stored as the prescription requires, according to the document. 

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

Sometimes, migrants are given a ticket to return and claim their belongings during the 30-day window, Quiroz said. Most of the time, migrants don’t return for their belongings, he said. 

If migrants are released and make their way across the country, they have 30 days to return to Yuma to reclaim their bag, which is a difficult task, Quiroz said. 

“I would say 99% of these individuals will not come back for their backpacks,” Quiroz said. “So in 30 days, it's still going to be thrown in the trash.”

On a recent morning, Quiroz spoke to a group of more than 300 migrants at the Arizona-Mexico border near Yuma. At the urging of Quiroz and his organization, the Border Patrol and Yuma County put two dumpsters and a water station for migrants at the frequent crossing point.  

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Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

“What you see in your backpack you won’t see anymore,” he proclaimed to the group of migrants. “Put the most important stuff in the bag that (the Border Patrol) gave you.”

Quiroz began to notice the trashing of migrant belongings over the past year. About a year ago, it largely was up to an agent’s discretion whether or not a migrant could take their backpack and other belongings with them. 

The process of discarding belongings later became more widespread, Quiroz said. 

“It's really something tragic,” said Nathalie Hernandez Barahona, volunteer coordinator with the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition organization. “I don't think it's beneficial for someone to throw away their most prized personal items that they've been traveling through countries with.”

Nathalie Hernandez Barahona, volunteer coordinator of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition, places water for migrants and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis, Arizona, on July 28, 2022.

Still, Quiroz understands that Border Patrol is overwhelmed and that the agency doesn’t have the capacity to store and tag each backpack, he said. 

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Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls shared the sentiment, saying border officials regularly see people cross the Colorado River with two or three bags of luggage and that Border Patrol doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate “whatever they want to bring.” 

“There's just not enough room physically within the facility to accommodate that kind of luggage,” Nicholls said.

“There's a limitation on what (migrants) are allowed to take and so (migrants) have to do something with the other stuff and they pitch it.”

Migrants and asylum seekers wait to be processed after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis, Arizona, on July 28, 2022.

In December, Nicholls proclaimed a local emergency because of the amount of migrants crossing through Yuma, describing it at the time as a “humanitarian and border crisis." 

“With so much going on, the men and women in Border Patrol are just mentally depleted in a lot of ways,” he said.

Concerns raised during Phoenix news conference

On Aug. 4, the Uncage & Reunite Families Coalition organized a news conference to raise concerns about the belongings that they say migrants are forced to leave behind at the Arizona-Mexico border. 

About 50 people gathered at the First Church United Church of Christ in Phoenix with some attendees holding posters with statements such as “Yuma’s Border Patrol’s trash is immigrants’ treasure.”

On June 3, Dianne Post, an attorney with the group, sent a letter to Yuma Sector Border Patrol Chief Chris Clem, Tae Johnson, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as to Arizona’s congressional leaders, alleging that the forced abandonment of migrants’ belongings violates their rights.

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The alleged actions violate international, federal and state laws, the letter goes on to say.  

“It’s just cruelty,” Post said in a phone interview. “There's no reason to do the things they're doing.”

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

On Aug. 3, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., along with 22 other members of Congress, sent a letter to Johnson and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus about the reports of CBP agents confiscating and discarding migrants’ personal documents and religious items.

In the letter, Grijalva requested more information regarding the oversight of standards, policies and procedures related to migrants’ personal property at CBP and ICE migrant facilities. 

Sikh asylum seekers’ turbans confiscated

In Yuma, Border Patrol agents reportedly have confiscated Sikh asylum seekers’ turbans without returning or replacing them, according to an Aug. 1 American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona letter to CBP Commissioner Magnus. 

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The letter described the confiscation of turbans as “serious religious-freedom violations” and stated that the actions “blatantly” violate federal law. In the past two months, there have been nearly 50 cases of religious headwear being confiscated from asylum seekers arriving from Yuma, the letter says. 

The ACLU requested that Magnus promptly investigate the claims. 

“We note that the permanent confiscation of religious headwear is but one piece of a more universal, well-documented, and recurring practice by agents in the Yuma Border Patrol Sector of forcing apprehended migrants to discard nearly all of their personal property in advance of processing,” the letter states. 

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

Magnus subsequently opened an investigation to address the concerns about the confiscated religious headwear. 

“We take allegations of this nature very seriously,” Magnus previously told the Arizona Republic in an emailed statement. “This issue was raised in June and steps were immediately taken to address the situation. Our expectation is that CBP employees treat all migrants we encounter with respect.”

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On Wednesday, Grijalva and Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and Judy Chu D-Calif., sent a letter to Magnus, demanding accountability after continued reports of Sikh asylum seekers’ turbans and other religious belongings being confiscated by CBP agents in the Tucson and Yuma sectors. 

“We are greatly alarmed by continuing reports that people are being indiscriminately forced to give up their religious items and other possession(s) —which are then trashed in many cases,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.  “According to multiple entities working directly with Sikh migrants, communication and cooperation with CBP officials specific to this issue has been difficult, making it even more urgent to address this situation as soon as possible.”

On July 28, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas authorized U.S. Customs and Border Protection to close four gaps in the Arizona-Mexico border wall near Yuma. The gaps in the border wall are near the Morelos Dam. 

Migrants and asylum seekers are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, nearby the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation on July 28, 2022.

The initiative, known as the Yuma Morelos Dam Project, is meant to address operational impacts as well as immediate life and safety risks, according to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security news release.

'Their journey is just beginning'

Quiroz on a recent morning worked his way through the long, winding line of more than 300 migrants, handing out water, bananas and oranges. As he walked, he took questions and announced what the process would look like for migrants going forward. 

Quiroz told the crowd that they were in Yuma, Arizona, and advised them to contact their family members to let them know they were safe. 

Fernando Quiroz, Yuma resident and director of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition, right, hands water to migrants and asylum seekers detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Ariz., nearby the Cocopah Indian Tribe's reservation on July 28, 2022.

“Start calling your family so they know where you are, that you’re OK,” Quiroz proclaimed. 

Quiroz closed his announcements by saying “good luck” and was met with a resounding “thank you” from the crowd. 

Quiroz, a child of immigrants, described the arduous and long journey that migrants and asylum seekers take to come to the U.S. Migrants traverse numerous countries, oftentimes, by car, bus or foot to arrive in the country because to them, “the American dream is still alive and vibrant,” he said. 

“To them, from what they're fearing, from what they're leaving behind, the journey, the struggle — it's worth it,” Quiroz said. “Some people perish and die along the way but they continue to come.”

Fernando Quiroz, Yuma resident and director of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition, right, hands water to migrants and asylum seekers detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona, near the Cocopah Indian Tribes reservation on July 28, 2022.

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The current patterns and processes of migration are not sustainable in the long term and something different must be done for migrants and asylum seekers, Quiroz said.

“At the end of the day, it's not much, what I'm doing,” Quiroz said. “It's a water, a snack, and a friendly smile that can make this morning for them a little better from what they had to struggle to get here.” 

“Their journey is just beginning,” he added. 

As the sun rose and the early morning haze dissipated, only a few dozen migrants were still in line. The Border Patrol vans had left to begin processing the large number of migrants and asylum seekers who had arrived early that morning. 

Fernando Quiroz, Yuma resident and director of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition, drives toward the U.S.-Mexico border to hand water bottles and snacks to migrants and asylum seekers waiting to be processed after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents near San Luis, Ariz,, on July 28, 2022.

Quiroz finished passing out one final round of bananas and water before announcing to the group that they may have to wait one to three hours before agents would return to get them. 

“Drink water,” Quiroz announced. “Good luck!” 

A canal runs along the U.S.-Mexico border, right, in San Luis, Arizona, on July 28, 2022.

Quiroz then hopped into his truck and began driving further down the dirt road where a family once rested. With the border wall to his right and farmland to his left, he stopped periodically along the way to pick up any discarded clothing or belongings he would see. 

As the sun rose behind him, he continued driving. There was more work to be done. 

Contact the reporter at jcastaneda1@arizonarepublic.com or connect with him on Twitter @joseicastaneda