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Immigration through the eyes of Yuma

Arizona attempts to plug the holes in U.S. border wall

Shipping containers block a void in the wall at the border in San Luis, Ariz. Getty Images/Photo by Nick Ut

Immigration through the eyes of Yuma

Yuma is two things: a city in the southwest corner of Arizona with a population of about 97,000 people—and one of the nine United States Southern Border Patrol sectors, covering 126 miles of the country’s border with Mexico. In 2022, both have witnessed a burst in immigration—one that has produced a staggering 2,952 percent leap in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encounters over numbers from 2020. The number of immigrants that have passed over the Yuma border in 2022 is already 2.6 times greater than the total population of the city.

With state law enforcement and border patrol struggling to make ends meet, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has captured the nation’s attention with an attempt to stem the flow by using tens of millions of dollars, razor wire, and metal shipping containers to plug as many as 50 holes in former President Donald Trump’s unfinished border wall. In the past two weeks, Arizona has managed to close off five gaps, three of those very close to Yuma.

Douglas Nicholls, the mayor of Yuma, says the shipping containers do two things.

“The five gaps that the governor has closed up in the last two weeks were the five busiest gaps we had,” Nicholls told me. “Having the ability to discourage crossers, as well as, when they do cross, coalesce them into a single location is more of a positive operational situation for Border Patrol and local law enforcement.”

Those shipping containers—while unlikely to fix Arizona’s immigration problem or stem the tide of the 259,850 CBP encounters already made through July of this year—have brought renewed attention to the U.S. southern border.

Almost half of the wall built under the Trump administration, about 226 miles, was built along the Arizona border, but scores of missing links allow thousands of immigrants to pour into the United States on a daily basis. Some of the gaps are 1,000 feet or longer, while others are only about as wide as a pair of cars parked end-to-end. To address the problem, the Arizona legislature appropriated $335 million to close the gaps in late June, and on Aug. 12 Ducey cleared approximately $6 million to begin construction on the temporary shipping container solution, which will later be replaced with fencing.

I spoke to people at more than 25 businesses in Yuma to see how the community perceives the issue. And while all of them were aware of the drastic increase in immigration from what they’ve seen in the news, most said the problem isn’t visible on the streets. Only one of them would share his full name.

Mark Mendoza, an employee at the Newberry Furniture store in the eastern part of Yuma, says that the influx is most visible near hotels or agricultural businesses where working immigrants often gather for temporary housing and work. But Mendoza told WORLD that the large number of immigrants who have crossed the border illegally aren’t milling about town.

“They don’t bother us very much. There’s a lot of people coming across, it’s crazy … but really I don’t see that many,” Mendoza said. “I’ve seen more bums on the streets of Spokane, Washington, than I do [immigrants] walking around. It’s there—you just don’t see it.”

Instead, Mendoza says he’s reminded about the immigration influx from the people around him who play a role in border security.

“Border Patrol are busy, I can tell you that,” Mendoza said with a dry laugh. “They’re always working. I have a lot of friends of mine that are Border Patrol. … My cousin’s a lawyer for the rights of [immigrants].” Mendoza said what angers him most is the fentanyl. Narcotics, as Mendoza points out, is another point where the local community feels the issue acutely.

Waves of illegal immigration are often accompanied by spikes in closely correlated crimes like drugs and human trafficking. From entry points like Yuma, thousands of pounds of heroin, fentanyl, and other substances make their way across the United States. As of Aug. 15, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported seizures this year of 53,946 pounds of cocaine and 10,558 pounds of fentanyl, along with a long list of other narcotics.

Noel Thomas, CEO of Zero Trafficking Consulting Services, explained that traffickers often rely on drug trade to ensnare victims who become addicted and trapped by substance abuse. The two go hand in hand in an extremely sophisticated web that stretches across the southern border.

“We had one particular case where a woman was being trafficked. We worked with law enforcement to help coordinate a rescue … she gets out of trafficking and her dad actually gets her to come back to the house for two hours. And then she ends up running away because she’s hooked on fentanyl,” Thomas said. “Arizona in particular has a deep fentanyl problem.”

Thomas isn’t optimistic that the border wall of storage containers will do much to keep out cartels, their products, or their victims. He pointed out that drug smugglers often develop things like tunnel networks to get around border walls and other obstacles. Even when trucks full of immigrants are apprehended, smugglers have developed methods to evade capture like instructing everyone in the vehicle to disperse in all directions—a tactic that often makes capture extremely difficult and exhausting for law enforcement.

“You can sense the frustration [from the border patrol] …. They’re overworked and under-appreciated. They become very frustrated and disenchanted,” Thomas said.

Federal border patrol has a close working relationship with the Yuma Police Department, cooperating under the federal Stonegarden program—a government grant program that funds teamwork between local and federal law enforcement efforts. Nicholls said that key partnership is one of the ways in which waves of illegal immigrants are kept out of the city of Yuma itself.

Nicholls believes another one of the reasons high volumes of immigrants aren’t felt as much within Yuma’s city limits is because a lot of the people who cross over illegally aren’t looking to stick around. When asked about Ducey’s decision to send buses full of immigrants to cities on the East Coast like Washington, D.C., and New York, Nicholls said it’s just speeding up a trend that is already in place.

“What’s important about that very visible act is that those people were headed in that direction anyway. And what that says to the country is, yeah, Yuma is seeing these high numbers of crossers, but they’re coming to your city. This is not relegated to a border issue. All they got was a free ride,” Nicholls said.

For now, he believes the wall of shipping containers can help law enforcement do their job more efficiently. He knows it won’t solve the problem outright, but hopes that the country sees the issue just a little more clearly as a result.

“The plugging of the walls is a management issue … I hope it builds some support for border patrol so they can do their job more effectively,” Nicholls said. “I hope it makes the case to the country, to Congress, to the president … we need immigration reform that meets the goals of the nation.”

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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