State now busing asylum seekers to Phoenix with shelters in southern Arizona full

DOUGLAS — A white U.S. Border Patrol bus trundled into the Douglas Visitor Center parking lot shortly before 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, carrying dozens of asylum seekers that agents had processed hours before.

They were among the growing numbers of asylum seekers being released by the Border Patrol in this border city and other communities in southern Arizona after Title 42 restrictions ended last week. The asylum seekers are now being transported by the state directly to Phoenix. Shelters in Tucson are full, and border communities don't have shelters to accommodate asylum seekers.

Two idling charter buses waited in the parking lot for the Border Patrol bus to arrive. Three agents stepped out of the white bus and helped usher asylum seekers off, directing them to one of the two coach buses.

As the buses departed from the parking lot, Dennis Walto looked on a few steps away. He's the chief of external affairs for Chiricahua Community Health Centers, a nonprofit rural health clinic in Cochise County.

Walto has been observing the bus transfers every day since the program was implemented last week. He applauded the coordination between the U.S. Border Patrol, city officials and religious organizations in Douglas to help receive and process people in an orderly fashion.

“This is a resource-stretched community anyway, but the fact that everyone stepped in and stepped up really speaks to the community,” Walto said.

“It’s what community looks like.”

Douglas, a border city of nearly 15,500 residents in southeastern Arizona, is about 70 miles south of Interstate 10, the nearest major transportation corridor, and 115 miles from the nearest airport in Tucson.

But since last week, it is one of several small rural communities along the Arizona-Mexico border where Border Patrol agents have been releasing asylum seekers paroled into the United States.

In the lead-up to the end of Title 42, a pandemic-era health rule that expired May 11, large numbers of migrants had arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. border officials anticipated it would be the start of a sustained wave of asylum seekers attempting to reach the southern U.S. border.

That did not materialize. Migrant encounters along the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped in half since last week, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"We attribute the reduction in encounters at our border both to the consequences that we have strengthened and put in place for unlawful entry and the lawful pathways that we have expanded, but also to the actions of our foreign partners," Blas Nuñez-Neto, the DHS assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, told reporters on Wednesday.

Why migrants are released into border communities

Even though that sustained increase did not happen, U.S. Border Patrol agents have been releasing asylum seekers into small communities along Arizona's border with Mexico for more than a week.

These communities are located next to Border Patrol stations where agents take in and process migrants. Border agents have been releasing an average of 150 asylum seekers in Douglas each day. In Bisbee, it is about 120 people daily.

Since these small communities lack the infrastructure to house or transport asylum seekers, on May 8 state government under Gov. Katie Hobbs stepped up to pay for charter buses to transport them from the border to Tucson and Phoenix, the two main transportation hubs in Arizona. There, asylum seekers can take buses or airplanes to destinations elsewhere in the United States.

“We're just hoping everything continues because, for us, we don't have any facilities,” Bisbee Mayor Ken Budge said.

In his city, border agents have been dropping off asylum seekers at the parking lot of the nearby Brian A. Terry Border Patrol station. Agents apprehended most of those people at other locations throughout southeastern Arizona but took them for processing at the Brian Terry station and released them afterward, according to Budge.

“There's no transportation, there's no trains, there's no other buses, no public transportation out of here, so it would be really difficult for (migrants) to move on from here,” he added.

A helping hand: Title 42 has ended. Here's how Phoenix humanitarian groups prepared to help

From May 8 to May 14, the state transported 3,025 asylum seekers on 87 buses, according to Judy Kioski, public information officer with the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. That's the state agency that has been coordinating with local governments and nonprofits to prevent having migrants released or stranded in the streets of southern Arizona.

Typically, nonprofit organizations such as Tucson’s Casa Alitas and Somerton’s Regional Center for Border Health have received asylum seekers and transported them to Phoenix or Tucson once they are released in southern Arizona.

Concertina wire is placed along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis, Ariz., as seen from San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico, on May 12, 2023.
Concertina wire is placed along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis, Ariz., as seen from San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico, on May 12, 2023.

They help arrange their travel to their final destinations but also have provided housing, meals and other services such as medical screenings and vaccines.

However, if there is an increase in arrivals, shelters may reach their capacity and cannot accept any more asylum seekers.

The Border Patrol can only hold migrants for a certain amount of time in its facilities, and if the agency also is at capacity, they resort to releasing people seeking asylum under parole directly into border communities that are often unequipped to help them.

It is unclear how long the community releases will go on. Border Patrol officials in Arizona have not responded to requests for comment.

But it has happened before. Starting in October 2018 and continuing well into 2021, Border Patrol has occasionally released asylum seekers directly from their patrol stations near small communities like Ajo or Gila Bend as they struggled with capacity at their holding facilities. The releases caught community leaders off guard as they scrambled to respond and transport them to Phoenix and Tucson.

Statewide network kicks into gear to transport asylum seekers

This time around, these communities are better prepared.

As Title 42 ended, southern Arizona braced for the arrival of more asylum seekers at the border and possible releases. A vast communication, transportation and shelter network that had been developing since the first round of community street releases kicked into high gear. And the state government has played a more active role.

Initially, DEMA-chartered buses had been transporting asylum seekers from Nogales, Naco, Douglas and Bisbee to Casa Alitas in Tucson twice a day when the bus routes began May 8.

Opinion: Border chaos in Arizona seems inevitable as Title 42 ends

But the shelter facilities in Tucson are at capacity and unable to receive more people, according to Jan Lesher, the Pima County administrator.

This border county has played a leading role in the humanitarian response in southern Arizona. It recently was awarded $29 million from the federal government to assist with the transportation and housing of asylum seekers, which the county can then disperse to the nonprofits and local governments it partners with.

On average, Tucson has been receiving about 1,400 asylum seekers per day, Lesher told Pima County commissioners at a meeting Tuesday. That includes the individuals that both Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement release directly in Tucson.

U.S. Border Patrol transfers a few dozen migrants to a state-run charter bus headed toward Phoenix from the Douglas Visitor's Center parking lot on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.
U.S. Border Patrol transfers a few dozen migrants to a state-run charter bus headed toward Phoenix from the Douglas Visitor's Center parking lot on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Given the limited resources, the county administrator said officials had to seek a new solution and look further north.

“We now have a system where if people were picked up in Douglas, Naco, Nogales, they will transported back to the Phoenix area for sheltering," Lesher said. "So at this point, we’re hoping to transition into a mode where we are getting those individuals that the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol drops in our community.”

Starting on Wednesday, Kioski said the charter buses leaving southeastern Arizona would instead make a 4-hour ride to Phoenix, instead of Tucson, where there is greater capacity to assist people seeking asylum. DEMA already has been operating a bus route from Somerton to Phoenix since May 9, she added.

But the new process to transport asylum seekers out of these small communities in southern Arizona has had glitches.

In Douglas, migrants were initially dropped off at the Walmart parking lot near the port of entry. However, after objection from store officials, the location was changed to the Douglas Visitor Center on Friday.

Douglas Mayor Donald Huish and Budge, the Bisbee mayor, said they’re content with how the state’s busing program has helped their communities remain relatively calm.

Related: Here's what to expect at the Arizona-Mexico border this week now that Title 42 is gone

However, both mayors called on the federal government to step up and take charge of a national issue, which is currently being handled by the state.

“Between us and Nogales, we're fairly calm,” Huish said. “(The Biden administration) still has a big problem to fix, and I hope that it's not forgotten at a national level.”

On the other end of Arizona's border with Mexico, Fernando Quiroz, director of the Yuma-based AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition, independently chartered four farmworker buses to help transport the asylum seekers to a church in Phoenix who agreed to help given capacity constraints in that region as well.

Quiroz coordinated the effort on May 12 to help asylum seekers reach their final U.S. destinations as Yuma County nonprofits were at capacity.

Mesa church agrees to accept migrants from border communities

An idling state-run charter bus waits for U.S. Border Patrol to drop migrants off at the Douglas Visitor's Center parking lot on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.
An idling state-run charter bus waits for U.S. Border Patrol to drop migrants off at the Douglas Visitor's Center parking lot on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

With shelters and resources in southern Arizona exhausted, the Phoenix metro area will begin to see the arrival of more asylum seekers in the coming days.

Already, the Regional Center for Border Health has been transporting migrants from the Yuma area to Sky Harbor International Airport.

But the Phoenix area also boasts a permanent 340-bed migrant shelter and a network of churches that can also take in asylum seekers as needed.

The Montevista Church in Phoenix was among the first to receive asylum seekers from southern Arizona on Thursday. Pastor Angel Campos told The Arizona Republic that ICE officials had dropped off 24 people, mostly from the Yuma area.

The Department of Emergency and Military Affairs also dropped off 81 asylum seekers at the church on Thursday after they were released in Cochise County and transported to Tucson, Campos said.

Officials normally will email the church the day before to estimate how many people will be dropped off so that members can prepare.

Campos said the end of Title 42 has brought more concern from elected leaders to find accommodations for asylum seekers than he has seen in previous years. Campos said he has received calls from the Governor's Office and has talked with several mayors, including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego.

"They talked to me about the emergency that is happening right now, and that if they can't find a place to drop off the immigrants, they will have to leave them in the street, and I told them no, they should send them to me," Campos said.

The Iglesia Cristiana Buen Pastor-Good Shepherd Christian Church in Mesa is another church that has agreed to begin receiving people bused from border communities in southeastern Arizona, said Hector Ramirez, the pastor at the church.

The first busload of asylum seekers will arrive May 23, after the church has time to line up volunteers to provide humanitarian assistance, the pastor added.

Until recently, the church only had been accepting asylum seekers dropped off there by federal immigration authorities on Thursdays after being processed by the Border Patrol's Yuma sector, Ramirez said.

ICE officials notified him on Wednesday to expect to receive 32 people from India, China, Brazil and countries in Africa on Thursday, he added.

The Welcome Center, a 340-bed shelter in Phoenix run by the International Rescue Committee, already has been receiving asylum seekers that had been initially dropped off in Tucson. Because they still had capacity, the center's staff sent buses to bring asylum seekers to Phoenix when Casa Alitas in Tucson ran out of space, according to Beth Strano, director at the Welcome Center.

Strano declined to say Wednesday if the center had started to receive asylum seekers bused directly from border communities in southern Arizona to Phoenix.

Strano said the center has received about 2,000 people in the first two weeks of May. That's on track to exceed the 3,000 asylum seekers the center had been receiving monthly. But the 24-hour shelter still has had enough space to accommodate asylum seekers brought in from Tucson, she added.

"We've been busy," Strano said. But "it hasn't been a super dramatic increase."

Most of the increase in asylum seekers occurred the week before Title 42 ended just before 9 p.m. May 11, when the center was receiving about 250 people per day, compared with about 110 before that. The center continued to receive about 250 asylum seekers through the weekend but the number appears to be leveling off and may even be decreasing, Strano said.

Like Casa Alitas in Tucson, The Welcome Center receives asylum seekers released by federal immigration authorities after they cross the border and are processed by Border Patrol agents.

The center has received asylum seekers from many countries, Strano said. The No. 1 country of origin this year has been India, primarily Sikhs, Strano said.

The other top 10 countries of origin are Peru, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ecuador, Russia, Colombia, Brazil and Mauritania, which replaced China in the 10th spot, she said.

The Department of Emergency and Military Affairs is also continuing to bus asylum seekers from Arizona to nonprofits in Washington. The state government began those efforts last May under Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. But his successor, Democratic Gov. Hobbs has continued that program.

Since May 2022, the state government has paid for 113 charter buses transporting 4,155 people to Washington as of Tuesday. Of that total, the state has sent 25 buses with 1,077 asylum seekers in 2023.

Javier Arce, editor of, contributed to this article.

Have a news tip or story idea about the border and its communities? Contact the reporter at or connect with him on Twitter @joseicastaneda.

Daniel Gonzalez covers race, equity and opportunity. Reach him at or 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez.

Have any news tips or story ideas about immigration in the Southwest? Reach the reporter at, or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: State expands busing of migrants as shelters fill in southern Arizona