PHOENIX — Saying it is overwhelmed with people crossing the border illegally, Customs and Border Protection will shut down the port of entry at Lukeville on Monday, a move that will force Arizonans to drive hundreds of miles out of the way to get to and from the Mexican resort town of Puerto Penasco.
And a top Senate Republican is calling on Gov. Katie Hobbs to deploy the National Guard to keep it open to expedite traffic for Arizonans who need to cross.
“On any given weekend, probably half of that city is Arizona citizens,” said T.J. Shope, the Senate president pro-tem. “I want to make sure they are safe coming home and able to get across that border and keep it open.”
And that, he said, includes his wife, Melissa.
“The thought of her having to drive through roads I’ve never driven through, I can’t verify the safety of that,” Shope told Capitol Media Services.
But Hobbs is showing no interest in what Shope is proposing.
“This is an unacceptable outcome that further destabilizes our border, risks the safey of our communities, and damages our economy by disrupting trade and tourism,” the Democratic governor said in a joint statement with Democrat Mark Kelly and independent Kyrsten Sinema, the state’s two U.S. senators. And the answer, they said, had to come from Washington.
“The federal government must act swiftly to maintain port of entry operations, get the border under control, keep Arizona communities safe, and ensure the humane treatment of migrants,” they said. “The administration must send immediate resources to secure the border and help our communities.”
And the trio, at least indirectly, took a swat at Republicans.
“Partisan politicians who parrot talking points while watching the border further deteriorate must reject the echo chamber and work with us to get something done and keep our communities safe,” the statement reads.
There was no specific mention, however, of Shope in that criticism.
All this is the result of an announcement Friday by the federal agency saying it needed to “temporarily suspend” operation of the crossing “in order to redirect personnel to assist the U.S. Border Patrol with taking migrants into custody.” The release did not say how long the closure will last.
What that most immediately means is a detour — and a long one.
CBP is suggesting that people can enter or leave the county at Nogales. Only thing is, that is about a 200 mile trip.
The other option is San Luis, south of Yuma. But that adds another 130 miles.
While the Lukeville crossing closure is somewhat off the beaten path and generally not used by commercial traffic, Shope said its closure will have a major impact on Arizonans.
“That’s a destination point for Arizonans,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of them down there right now.”
The federal agency, however, said it had no choice, saying it needs “all available resources to expeditiously and safely process migrants.” And that, the agency says, leaves no one to staff the Lukeville crossing.
Shope, however, said that could be resolved if National Guard troops take their place.
The idea, he said, is not as radical as it sounds.
California sent 24 soldiers to ports of entry in 2018 to handle “operational and surveillance support.” That included helping move vehicles into inspection areas, freeing up CBP officers to focus on front-line duties.
Arizona did the same thing in 2018, with troops helping with secondary inspections at commercial border crossings, doing things like operating X-ray machines.
And the Arizona National Guard reports it has “several hundred” soldiers deployed along the border handling routine, non-law-enforcement duties to help free up Border Patrol agents. These, however, were sent there not by Hobbs but under the authority of the Department of Defense.
But Shope acknowledged these all have been support roles — and for an actual, operating border crossing. What he is proposing is to have National Guard personnel actually operate the closed port of entry by themselves.
More to the point, they would be acting as federal agents — and enforcing federal immigration laws.
That, said Shope, presents a hurdle of its own.
“I get that there has to be coordination,” he said. “Is there a possibility for these folks to potentially even be federalized to help with the situation down there so we can keep that port of entry open?”
There was no immediate response from the governor.
Even if the legal hurdles can be cleared, that still leaves another question: Who will pay for the cost of the deployment. Shope said the feds should pick up the tab as keeping border stations open is their role and responsibility.
“If they need our help, they should be paying for it,” he said.
Shope said it’s no different than when the federal government reimburses state and local agencies who fight fires on federal lands.
“If we are to believe that the border is a federal jurisdiction role, then us offering to basically alleviate the pressure in that way, we should be compensated,” he said.
Shope’s request to the governor comes a day after Congressman Juan Ciscomani sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas seeking that he request the Department of Defense to deploy the Arizona National Guard “to help with this dire situation.”
“The situation is far past a breaking point and those on the front lines of this crisis are in need of immediate support,” Ciscomani wrote.
In some ways, the decision to shutter the port of entry entirely — even if only temporarily — is a surprise.
Customs and Border Protection had announced this past week that it was reducing vehicle processing capacity at the Lukeville port to temporarily reassign staff to assist Border Patrol agents with taking migrants into custody and processing them.
The Tucson sector of the Border Patrol has been the busiest of none southern border sectors since July. In October, border agents encountered 55,000 migrants who they found in between official ports of entry in the sector, up from 51,000 the prior month.
But the number of encounters along the entire U.S.-Mexico border fell in October.
The suspension of operations at Lukeville is just one of the actions being taken to deal with the surge of migrants.
John Modlin, chief Border Patrol agent for the Tucson sector, announced this past Sunday that his staff will reduce its social media posts to increase focus on border enforcement.
“At this time, all available personnel are needed to address the unprecedented flow,” he said in a Facebook post. “The social media team will return once the situation permits.”
But Modlin said that isn’t cutting off all information.
“We will continue to post our weekly review statistics, demonstrating the continued efforts of our agents and staff,” he said.