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    At the Arizona-Mexico border, residents are fed up: ‘The politicians are creating the mayhem’

    By Maanvi Singh at the Arizona-Mexico border,

    16 days ago
    The border fence between the US and Mexico in Nogales, Arizona, on 24 June 2024. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

    A few hundred feet from the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, Laura Aldana chuckled at the suggestion – made by both leading presidential candidates – that the region had fallen into chaos.

    “Where?” she asked rhetorically. She gestured toward the street outside the downtown formalwear boutique where she works. “There’s almost too little to do here.”

    Elsewhere in town, Oscar Felix Jr, a local radio host, shook his head at the idea that there was a crisis. “Yeah, no we are good.”

    And a hundred miles east, in the border town of Douglas, Peggy Christiansen, a pastor at the First Presbyterian church, cringed. “I look at those conversations on TV, or on the news – and it just makes me mad,” she said. “The politicians are creating the mayhem.”

    In Arizona – a key battleground state – residents living near the border are finding their region the centre of attention in a presidential election cycle where immigration has emerged as a top concern for voters.

    The issue has darkened Joe Biden’s hopes for re-election – and the president, sensing this weakness, has promised to “secure the border and secure it now” with harsh new restrictions on people seeking asylum in the US. During the presidential debate last week, the Donald Trump honed in on the issue – redirecting questions about the economy, abortion and the environment to immigration and painting a cataclysmic scene of millions arriving at the border to “destroy our country”. If he wins in November, the former president has promised the detention and mass deportation of unauthorised immigrants, and an expanded border wall.

    Here along the border, residents interviewed by the Guardian had many different ideas about how the US should respond to one of the largest surges in migration in the country’s history. But even those with wildly different political views and background were united in their scepticism that all that rhetoric would amount to much.

    Some said they were increasingly feeling like pawns in a political game. Many were worried that the election year would further defer the sorts of broad reforms they’ve been requesting for years.

    “It is interesting because every time it’s a political campaign, the migrants become a problem,” said Felix Jr, who runs the local Spanish-language radio station Maxima FM. “But they never talk about what is really affecting us.”


    At the beginning of the year, the border’s Tucson sector – which stretches from Arizona’s border with New Mexico in the east to the edge of Yuma county in the west – became the busiest region for migrant crossings. Across the border, authorities were apprehending a record number of people – including about 2.4 million people in the fiscal year ending in September 2023.

    Panicked local leaders have been publicly calling for more funding and resources from the federal government to shelter and feed the influx of people. In high-profile news reports, disgruntled ranchers and hardened immigration critics have recoiled at what they perceive as intruders on their land.

    “I’m afraid of how the media has covered this, and how politicians have exploited that,” said Mark Adams, a coordinator for Frontera De Cristo, a Presbyterian ministry based in Douglas and across the border in Agua Prieta. He and other locals have bristled at characterizations of Douglas and other border towns as chaotic or overrun.

    In September of last year, amid a rush of arrivals, Customs and Border Protection started releasing asylum seekers who had been granted humanitarian parole into small, rural communities including Douglas, Bisbee, Nogales and Casa Grande, rather than transporting them to bigger cities. Many of the mayors and sheriffs of these towns balked.

    But in Douglas, a town of about 15,500 people, locals sprang into action, Adams said. The local Catholic and Presbyterian churches, along with Frontera de Cristo, arranged housing for families and individuals. Local restaurants donated catered meals, and home cooks contributed giant pots of pozole.

    Over a six-month period, the coalition welcomed about 8,500 people. The volunteer-run migrant welcome centre ran so smoothly. “Hardly anybody who wasn’t involved knew that this was even happening,” Adams said.

    In recent months, as the number of migrant apprehensions dropped, officials once again began busing new arrivals directly to Tucson, where they could more easily seek out legal resources and flights to reunite sponsors or family members in other states. But some in his congregation were almost disappointed they wouldn’t get to welcome more people, Adams said.

    “I told them ‘No!’ It’s so much better for them to go to Tucson,” he said, laughing. “But this is a small community and there was just such an outpouring of support. So to see this narrative that the migrants are a burden to our towns is really upsetting.”

    Within the town, and all along its outskirts – where remote cattle ranches and scattered homesteads blend into desert and red rock mountains – other residents said the national rhetoric on immigration and the border often clashed with their realities.

    Trump’s references, especially, to the border as a “war zone” make her wince, said Christiansen, the pastor.

    “But I’m really disappointed that Biden and his people are just starting to do the same thing,” she said. “It’s like people are just starting to sprout this rhetoric that isn’t based on reality.”

    Christiansen, who grew up on a cattle ranch about 30 minutes drive out of town and still lives in the country, often sees migrants crossing through her property, as do family members and neighbours. She can empathise with the complicated feelings some locals have about the surge in migration. Many have to contend with trash on their property, cut cattle fences, drained water tanks and other property damage that can cost ranchers earning slim margins of hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some worry about the threat posed by cartels who smuggle people across the border, she said.

    But, she added: “In my family, if someone crosses the fence or some smuggler drops them off in the desert, if they need help we give them water and shade and a place to charge their phones. And then we mind our own business.”

    Recently, she had offered a drink to a young man who was desperate and dehydrated when officers showed up at her door asking after a person of his description. “I don’t lie, so I had to tell them,” she said. “But this was just a young man and he was desperate. I hugged him, and I said I was sorry.”


    West of Nogales, where the border wall slices across the ancestral land of the Tohono O’odham, Faith Ramon sees a monument to an immigration system that has failed both her community and the migrants it was built to deter.

    “I keep thinking, why does it have to be like this?” she said.

    Construction of the wall during the Trump administration destroyed sacred Tohono O’odham sites and desecrated burial grounds, wreaking ecological disaster in its path. In the ensuing years, she said, enhanced border security measures in the region have led to the near-daily harassment of Tohono O’odham nation members.

    Anyone who doesn’t look white is at risk of getting pulled over or interrogated, said Ramon, a member of the Tohono O’odham nation and a community organiser with the progressive group Lucha, which is challenging an Arizona ballot measure that would empower local law enforcement agents to similarly target and question anyone they suspect to be undocumented.

    Last year, border patrol agents shot and killed 58-year-old Raymond Mattia outside his home on the Tohono O’odham reservation. “If they want to secure the border, then they should be doing that,” she said. “Not hanging around my grandma’s backyard or my community store.”

    “People are coming just for the quote-unquote American dream. And it’s becoming a nightmare,” she said, for everyone.

    In a region where people have long felt ignored by both political parties, residents were divided over Biden’s recent executive order – which shuts down the border to nearly all asylum seekers once the average for daily unauthorised crossings hits 2,500.

    When Biden announced the order earlier this month, Kat Rodriguez, the activist in Tucson, had just completed an annual 75-mile trek from Sasabé, Mexico, through the desert to Tucson, to honour migrants who died making the long journey north. “Every election, historically and consistently, the border becomes this poker chip that politicians throw in there to show that they’re tough,” she said. “And it seems like there’s this race to the bottom with some of these policies of who can be more draconian.”

    She and other advocates worried that the restrictions would further push desperate people to try to cross covertly rather than wait to apply for asylum. “People are already waiting for unreasonable amounts of time,” she said. “And this just puts even more people in a vulnerable position.”

    Some immigrant advocates and local leaders have also pointed out the order doesn’t come with additional funding or resources for enforcement, or for cities struggling to provide for the influx of people. And it’s unclear that the order would deter economic migrants crossing unlawfully, many of whom understand they do not qualify for asylum and therefore make treacherous journeys across the desert to evade authorities.

    Others were more optimistic. “It makes me think Biden is looking out for the country,” said Rob Victor, a retired border patrol agent who has since settled in Douglas. Agents have been overwhelmed in recent years, he said, as have cities not just along the border and across the country who lacked the resources to shelter asylum seekers waiting in the US for their cases to be worked out in immigration courts.

    That order, along with Biden’s executive action shielding the undocumented spouses of US citizens from deportation, are steps in the right direction to allow the immigration judges and patrol agents to focus on existing applications and border security, he said.

    But on their own, the actions aren’t enough to address pressure at the border, he continued. “The answers are not at the border enforcement level, or at the border patrol level. We need comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.

    He’d like to see the US hire hundreds more immigration judges, so that those seeking asylum don’t have to wait for years for a court date without the ability to earn money for themselves. And there should be more opportunities for temporary work visas for people who come to the US primarily looking for work, he said. “That has to be negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “Let’s get the Squad involved in this. And let’s get some conservative Republicans too. And Kyrsten Sinema – she’s a Democrat but moderate,” he said, referring to the Arizona senator, who visited Douglas earlier this year to deliver the bad news that congressional action on immigration was unlikely in 2024 after Trump helped sink the effort in February.

    But Congress has repeatedly failed to reform the immigration system for decades . And people on both sides of the border have grown weary.

    “For me it’s been three years,” said Maria Luisa Garcia, 55, who waits on the Mexican side of the border in Nogales, Sonora, each week – to meet with her niece on the US side, in Nogales, Arizona.

    Garcia cannot cross to the US until her visa application is processed and her niece, who is also applying for residency, cannot cross south while her application is pending.

    The two link fingers through the gaps in the rust-red steel bollards. “One more year, and return, they told me. One more and one more.” she said, shaking her head.

    Read more reporting from the US-Mexico border:

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