As Title 42's end looms, we're hearing from immigration agents on Arizona's frontlines

Title 42 expires at midnight on May 11 – the Trump policy was used to expel migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic for health reasons.

Now, it's ending and officials are on edge. President Joe Biden is even predicting "chaos, as towns are already seeing the warning signs of a potentially enormous influx of criminal activity and a new wave of migrant crossings.

Arizona is on the front line of this fight.

Border patrol agents and U.S. Customs officers in Nogales say they’re seizing the most fentanyl pills and powder out of anywhere in the entire country.

"So right here once we hit this road right here, you will actually probably see them," says Alejandro Alvirde, a border patrol agent.

Alvirde has been a border patrol agent in Texas, New Mexico, and now Nogales, Arizona for the last 14 years, and lately, he’s noticed a change.

"I've always been busy here but what is unusual is all the people that are just coming in to turn themselves in, it’s something that we are not used to, it didn’t ever use to happen," he said.

Alvirde says in Mariposa Canyon, anywhere from 100 to 200 people, illegally cross through gaps in the border wall every single day.

Agents say, spotters, usually teenagers, sit on top of the mountains in Mexico, watching Arizona agents' every move, waiting for the right opportunity to send people across.

"It's very busy. We do have certain spots that get hit the most. If you go out further west, they do tracks, pretty much looking for footprints on the ground," Alvirde said.

He says many want to turn themselves in as they’re seeking asylum, running from violence in their home countries. They’re called the "give up" groups, but the other half he says, want to evade capture.

"The give-up groups, we are seeing people as young as just infants, one-year-olds, with the people who are not trying to claim asylum. It's usually from 15 all the way up to 60-year-olds," he said.

Title 42 was created by the CDC during the pandemic to help stop the spread of COVID-19 while also allowing border patrol agents to expel migrants who crossed into the U.S.

"What it allowed us to do is someone would come in without a visa, they were returned to Mexico. Some were still allowed in. Unaccompanied children, for example, high risk for abuse in another country," said Michael Humphries, Nogales port director.

The Biden administration will lift Title 42 on May 11th, which is praised by some but feared by others. 

Many politicians and law enforcement agencies across the southwest border say they need some sort of replacement to help combat the flow of people illegally crossing the border as things are expected to get worse once it’s gone. 

The Biden administration announced earlier this month that it plans to send 1,500 troops to help in these already busy communities.

"We have to balance all our resources. We are confident in our ability to do that but at some point, if we have issues with post-Title 42, that might start affecting wait times and the number of vehicle lanes open, to be able to process people or travelers coming into the U.S. We will look at all our priorities, and we will have to make some tough decisions at some point if the landscape changes," Humphries said.

Over at the ports of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers enforce over 400 laws for 40 different federal agencies. Not only stopping illegal activity at the border, but also ensuring produce and other products in the supply chain are crossing in a safe and timely manner.

This means they’re checking every train and semi-truck, on top of their duties fighting crime.

"I believe yesterday we got close to 1,800 semi-tractor trailers coming in through here. Last month we were bringing in about 27 million pounds of produce a day," Humphries said.

Out of all the ports of entry across Arizona, including airports and also land entries, the crossings in Nogales are the busiest.

Officers are not only using old school methods like mirrors and K-9s, but new technologies like scanners to X-ray vehicles to help keep everything flowing.

"A lot rests on our shoulders, but they are doing a great job out there and a lot of this isn’t ‘open the trunk and oh fentanyl.’ It’s deep concealments in voids in cars, in all kinds of cars, in trains, in semi-tractor trucks, in bodies, and outside of bodies," Humphries said. "In the drive shaft, in doors, airbag compartments, air filter compartments, bumpers, floors, roofs, you name it, tires, gas tanks."

The DEA says it seized more than 22 million fentanyl pills last year in Arizona alone. That’s about half the national total and the main entry point is right here in Nogales for the cartels.

"We lead the agency right now as far as seizures of fentanyl pills," Humphries said, adding, "We’ve exceeded well over 28 million fentanyl pills approximated here at the port of Nogales."

28 million fentanyl pills in the last six months alone, Humphries says that’s more pills than the last five years combined.

"Five or six years ago, fentanyl, what is that? And we got small, small amounts. It's grown incrementally every year until this year. It's just through the roof, it’s almost a daily occurrence," Humphries said.

Out of the entire country, Nogales sees the most fentanyl seizures. Officials say that’s because of the Sinaloa cartel, which is the main supplier and distributor.

It directly uses Arizona to smuggle drugs into the rest of the country. Officers say unfortunately fentanyl is easy to make, transport, and sell for a good profit. As demand grows, addiction is skyrocketing.

To help tackle the growing workload, they’re offering up to $20,000 in bonuses for new agents. Not only is it their job to secure everything coming into the U.S., but also leaving the country.

"We are seizing high-powered rifles, assault rifles. The other day we got 19,000 rounds of AK-47 assault rifle ammunition going into Mexico," Humphries said. "These are things that are going to go back to the transnational criminal organizations, to be used for their criminal activities to intimidate, to cause fear in the public to combat against other cartels, to battle against the military and law enforcement as well."

For now, it’s a waiting game to see what comes after Title 42 ends, but these men and women say they’ll be ready.

"It’s a very rewarding field even though right now it’s kind of complicated. At the end of the day, it’s very rewarding. It’s security for families," Alvirde said.