Has Yuma Become a Hidden ‘Del Rio’?

‘Middle-class’ migrants destroying crops and taxing limited medical resources

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 5, 2022

Lost in the holiday rush, and obscured by its remote location, the border city of Yuma, Ariz., has seen a flood of illegal migrants in recent weeks. The situation there appears to be a lot worse than the national media has reported, and the flow of migrants is very different than in the past. My colleague Todd Bensman called this one back in October — it looks like Yuma has become a hidden “Del Rio”.

September’s “Del Rio” Fiasco. In a September post, I explained that a surge of 15,000-plus migrants — mostly Haitian’s who had not lived in that Caribbean country in years — into the small city of Del Rio, Texas, that month had turned “Del Rio” into “shorthand for a border in chaos”. Migrants erected their own shelters on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande waiting for Border Patrol processing, supplies ran out, and services were nonexistent.

The administration’s response to the fiasco there ran from the incompetent to the pathetic. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned migrants to stay away and threatened entrants with return home, while at the same time Vice President (and quasi-Border Czar) Kamala Harris justified their entry.

The U.S. special envoy to Haiti quit in a huff, and when pictures emerged of mounted agents on horseback attempting to impede the entry of a group of migrants there, Democratic members of Congress, Harris, and even the president himself rushed to judgment, criticizing Border Patrol’s actions.

That incident has spurred a round of litigation from a group of those migrants (as my colleague Mark Krikorian reported on December 28), and unexpectedly required me to draw upon my knowledge of equestrian science to defend the United States’ treatment of migrants on Swiss television and in the halls of the European Parliament.

Yuma in Context. Fortunately, Yuma has not been the debacle that the Biden administration turned “Del Rio” into — yet. But what is unfolding there has been no less tragic, nor less of a challenge for federal, state, and local officials.

To put the scene in Yuma into context, you must understand the town and the border that separates it from the village of San Luis Colorado, Sonora, on the Mexican side.

Southern Arizona (from roughly south of Phoenix) and much of the New Mexico border (including the “bootheel”) became part of the nation as a result of the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, when the United States paid Mexico $10 million to settle land claims to just short of 30,000 square miles.

The Purchase ended at the Colorado River, which creates a jagged southwestern edge to the Grand Canyon State running up to the California border. The river demarcates the western edge of Yuma’s suburbs, while the straight treaty line to the south is where the city’s environs end.

I went to Yuma in January 2019 and two things really struck me. The first was that Yuma is a paradise for Canadians from that country’s western provinces. License plates from Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and Manitoba filled the parking lot of the hotel where I stayed, and when I ventured into Mexico, I was surrounded by nationals of the Great White North looking for cut-rate medications, cheap beer, local food, and dental treatment.

The second was the fences. Unlike much of the border (even to this day), barriers were everywhere, and in every shape and size. From 30-foot bollard fencing to chain-link barriers surrounded by accordion wire, greater Yuma was a study in barriers. In many places near the Colorado River, however, Normandy-style vehicle barriers were the sole impediment to transit, waiting for sturdier fencing.

It was not always that way. As then-acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke wrote in August 2017:

For years, Yuma sector was besieged by chaos as a nearly unending flood of migrants and drugs poured across our border. Even as agents were arresting on average 800 illegal aliens a day, we were still unable to stop the thousands of trucks filled with drugs and humans that quickly crossed a vanishing point and dispersed into communities all across the country.

It is hard for anyone familiar with Yuma sector today to imagine this scene. That’s because nearly a decade ago, a group of bipartisan lawmakers came together to protect the homeland, save innocent lives, and build a physical barrier across the border.

Duke lauded Yuma as proof that walls work, and if you are looking for a piece that compares and contrasts the border policies of the past two administrations, Duke’s op-ed is the place to start. Biden almost immediately put a halt to Trump’s fence construction plans.

The Crisis in Yuma Today. Regrettably, Duke’s sunny depiction of a border under control in Yuma also contrasts with the situation on the ground there today and shows that good policies are as critical to border security as barriers are.

In FY 2021, as illegal migration at the Southwest border surged to historical highs, Yuma was hit especially hard. From 8,804 Border Patrol apprehensions in Yuma sector in FY 2020, the approximately 784 agents there stopped nearly 114,500 migrants in FY 2021. That has continued into FY 2022 (which began on October 1).

In October and November, agents in Yuma sector apprehended more than 44,500 illegal migrants, a 2,400 percent increase over the same two-month period in FY 2021. Aside from the Rio Grande Valley sector — which has been the border hotspot for years — that is the largest number of apprehensions in any of the Border Patrol’s nine Southwest sectors, and by far the largest increase by percentage.

The migrants in Yuma are also very different from those apprehended in the other eight sectors. Just fewer than 2,800 were Mexican nationals, and 1,804 were from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The remaining 39,900-plus migrants—89.6 percent of the total apprehensions in October and November—were not from Mexico (OTMs) and not from the Northern Triangle (ONTs); they came from farther afield.

Who are the OTM/ONTs who were apprehended in Yuma? On December 15, CNN reported that they were “primarily of the middle-class in South America”. Why exactly would middle-class South Americans be headed to an isolated spot in the middle of the Sonoran Desert?

The outlet helpfully cites an “expert”, who explained:

On one hand, Covid and the accompanying recessions left many people in the Latin American middle class a lot worse off and people who would not have considered migrating have decided it's a useful option. ... At the same time, the ease of crossing the border has made some people who have ties to the US decide it's time to come now if they're going to make it. I think both those things are true at the same time.

Respectfully, the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant shutdowns have left many in the American middle class “a lot worse off” (to say nothing of the poor, who have suffered the most), and you don’t see them viewing emigration as a “useful option”. Nor are temporary economic downturns back home justification for entering the United States illegally.

That does not mean that CNN’s expert is wrong; he is almost definitely correct. I would have emphasized the latter point, however — “the ease of crossing the border has made some people who have ties to the US decide it's time to come now if they're going to make it.”

The Biden administration’s ham-handed and blanket evisceration of policies put into place by its predecessor, which had successfully brought control to the Southwest border, has put out the welcome mat for all those from abroad looking to take advantage of the comparably better economic situation in the United States.

What about the one pseudo-border policy of the Trump administration that President Biden has left in place, expulsions pursuant to CDC orders issued under Title 42 of the U.S. Code in response to the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic? Just over 9 percent of all the migrants apprehended in Yuma (4,077) in October and November were expelled under Title 42, and just 2.5 percent were OTM/ONTs.

Nor does it appear that those middle-class South American migrants walked all the way to Yuma. CNN explained:

[M]any migrants fleeing conditions in Latin America and arriving in Yuma took a different path — often flying to an airport in Mexico and then crossing at a gap along the Colorado River, cutting the journey down to just days. It's the most viable option for many Venezuelans and Brazilians, for example, who can't obtain a visa that allows them to work in the US — or can't afford the years-long wait for the legal immigration process.

So apparently you can “flee conditions” in your homeland by hopping a flight from Rio de Janeiro into Mexico City and taking a bus to the border. And it is apparently okay to illegally cross the Colorado River if you don’t have time to wait for a visa or can’t get one. Note that travelers from Brazil and Venezuela until recently did not even need a visa to get into Mexico. (Visa requirements have just been imposed for Brazilians and Venezuelans.)

Those migrants aren’t even trying to sneak in. According to CNN, many, “pulling suitcases and carrying luggage, cross and congregate to be picked up by Border Patrol agents”.

On December 7, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) announced that he would be sending additional public safety resources to the area (including National Guard personnel and air and ground resources) in order to address what he termed “the Biden Border Crisis in Yuma, Arizona”.

Ducey explained: “As a result of piecemeal policy and a lack of federal involvement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been inundated. We simply cannot stand by and watch this catastrophe unfold. We are taking action at the state level to protect Arizonans and our communities.”

He added: “This crisis means migrants are making the dangerous journey to the U.S., facing illness, violence and death.”

Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls declared a local emergency on December 9, “due to the unprecedented numbers of migrants entering the city prior to being processed and released by Border Patrol”, which had created “a humanitarian and border crisis”. He called on the federal government and state authorities for help.

His crisis declaration explained that 6,000 migrants reportedly had crossed into the area during one five-day period, straining “the ability of medical staff and local hospital resources to provide essential and necessary medical care” to the city’s residents and to the migrants themselves.

Later reporting indicated that some 20 to 25 migrants were showing up at the emergency department at Yuma Regional Medical Center daily. A report from the local ABC affiliate stated that some of the migrants were suffering from dehydration and exposure while awaiting apprehension, and continued: “Another man we met from Nicaragua said he needs kidney dialysis and a woman from Haiti looked as if she was about to give birth at any moment.”

The migrants themselves are also disrupting the area’s agricultural sector, a key industry there. Yuma County is the source of 90 percent of all leafy vegetables grown in the United States between November and March, and bills itself as the “Winter Lettuce Capital of the World”. Mayor Nicholl’s declaration states that migrants are tearing through the crops as they go through fields looking for “food, water, and essential services”, and the human waste they are leaving is making the produce “unharvestable”.

The crisis in Yuma continues. Mayor Nicholls told Fox News on January 4 that the situation there was “beyond the capacity of the way Border Patrol and [ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO)] ... normally work. And so now it's kind of just trying to sustain an operating level.”

He blamed Biden’s reversal of Trump’s border policies as well as the administration’s failure to complete the border wall there for the situation, and called for more infrastructure and border staffing in the area.

On January 4, the Yuma Sun said that the local Crossroads Mission was “being overwhelmed by migrants”, and that 170 were camped outside of the mission on January 2.

“Del Rio” was notable because it was concentrated by the Rio Grande. The crisis in Yuma appears to be every bit as large, and to pose as big a threat to the local community and to national security as “Del Rio” did. It’s flying under the radar because it’s spread over a larger area in a place normally only of interest to Canadian snowbirds. That doesn’t make it any better for the residents, farmers, and medical personnel left to deal with the consequences of bad border policies.