YUMA — Yohadner Araujo and his partner, Maria, sit close in the white plastic folding chairs. Red-eyed, sweat-caked, and still wearing the muddied clothes they crossed the border in, their faces drip with exhaustion. 

It is a blistering 111-degree day, and they are in a state of nervous relief as they sit in the shade of the tent, soaking in wisps of cool air fanning out from a giant swamp cooler. They both carry a small plastic bag stuffed with toiletries — toothbrush, comb, deodorant — and are rapidly typing on their phones.

Less than an hour earlier, they’d been released from U.S. Border Patrol custody outside of Yuma, far from their native Venezuela. Now, they are trying to figure out how to get to their family in Utah. 

Yohadner and Maria are two of about 400 migrants released by Yuma Border Patrol that day in late July. She’s using a pseudonym for fear of retaliation.

For the last two years — with official ports of entry shuttered to migrants along the U.S.-México border — more than 2 million people have been pushed back into México. They are left to linger in dangerous precarity, falling victim to extortion, kidnapping, rape and murder. Many of them simply turn back around and try again. The number of Border Patrol apprehensions — which often includes detaining the same person on repeated tries — has spiked to numbers not seen in decades.

People are increasingly coming to the U.S. southern border from all over the world. This July, the number of migrants not from México, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador who were taken into Border Patrol custody was more than 116,000. Two years ago, that number was only 13,000. Many of the migrants — now primarily coming from places like Venezuela and Cuba — are passing through Yuma and prompting political hot takes and punditry, not all of it based in fact.

Since April 2021, the Regional Center for Border Health has stepped in to help women, children and men seeking asylum and refuge in the Yuma area. The center is one of dozens of nonprofits working along the U.S.-México border offering a range of services to migrants. Many are stretched thin, wondering how after more than a year of scrambling to fill canyon-sized gaps, they are still waiting on a cooperative plan from local, state and federal leaders that will help people living, and dying, in an extended humanitarian crisis.

The center has provided varying levels of aid to about 65,000 recently released migrants over the past 15 months. They’ve done most of that work on their own dime, only recently starting to receive some financial recompense from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. 

FEMA still owes them about $1.3 million, according to officials with the center. Meanwhile, the work of aiding migrants shows no signs of waning. 

Partially in response to rising numbers, as well as a relaxation of pandemic protocols, after hitting a recent low, the number of people being sent to immigration detention centers known for rampant human rights violations is creeping back up. While Border Patrol locks up some migrants, they also sometimes release them into the streets, dropping them off without any resources or guidance. In late 2020 and early 2021 Border Patrol agents started dumping more and more migrants into a Yuma parking lot. 

In response, the center erected a makeshift reception hub in the parking lot next to their offices. They receive busloads every single day, sometimes more than 500 people, said the center’s CEO, Amanda Aguirre. 

A bustling team of dozens of workers help welcome the migrants who show up every day. They offer a smiling face, as well as basic services like bathrooms and a spot to wash their hands and face. Medical staff perform triage and others help the released migrants connect with family, grab a bite and move on to their next destination. 

The cluster of tents set up in the parking lot has the air of an assembly line working to fill the migrants’ needs, which are often overlooked or blatantly ignored by Border Patrol agents. Despite the mechanistic feel, people are relieved: They are out of custody, getting what they need. Then they are on their way.

“This is a time for us to step up,” Aguirre says matter-of-factly from her office, sitting at the head of a conference desk piled high with papers she relies on to keep track of whose needs must be met first, as well as stacks of reports with data to show anyone who will listen what it looks like when people are at the center of an international plight.

Besides helping recently released migrants, the center has been providing healthcare to Arizonans in some of the most underserved and rural areas of the state. They have also tested more than a quarter million local residents for COVID-19 and has vaccinated about 75,000 people. 

That work, combined with the sustained humanitarian emergency, has required a Herculean logistical response. 

Aguirre and her team have to be nimble and are “constantly putting out fires,” she says. They’ve only taken a single day off in the last 16 months.

Amid the enduring political and legal chaos surrounding U.S. immigration and border policy, Aguirre is asking for more coordinated state and federal support to fulfill needs in a humanitarian crisis. 

For those working on the ground, it is vexing that a nation — known historically as a refuge for people fleeing persecution and war — continues to falter at its Southern Arizona borders.

A group of Russian and Belarusian men enter a Border Patrol van before being taken to nearby station for further processing. Credit: John Washington

Yumans on reports they’ve been overrun: ‘That’s not true.’

The Yuma area, like many small cities in the borderlands, has long been a place of cultural and demographic blend, but not until recently have large numbers of migrants from distant parts of the world come to cross the border here. 

The once relatively sleepy Border Patrol station has been struggling to handle the influx. With the ports of entry closed, most migrants have been wading across the Colorado River or one of the offshoot canals, walking through a gap in the border wall, and turning themselves into Border Patrol. 

To get some perspective on the rapid pace of change specific to Yuma, it’s helpful to look at some numbers. 

In 2019, not a single month saw more than a thousand “encounters” (the term Border Patrol uses for arresting or expelling a migrant) in the entire Yuma sector. That number started rising in 2021. So far in fiscal year 2022, each month has seen more than 20,000 encounters in the Yuma sector. 

With no Greyhound bus station in Yuma, Border Patrol was dropping people off at an unsheltered, unshaded stop in the desert city. Those without the means to afford a hotel or to immediately travel to other destinations in the U.S. had nowhere safe to wait.

Despite Yuma’s Border Patrol station being stretched thin and humanitarian aid limited, the tens of thousands of migrants passing through Yuma has not been overwhelming or overrunning the city, as some news headlines portrayed early in the spike. Most of the migrant men, women and children are quickly moving on. 

“I don’t see them on a day-to-day basis,” said Kimberly Kahl, executive director of Yuma Chamber of Commerce. 

“Most of them are not trying to sneak across. They’re turning themselves in to seek asylum,” Kahl said. “They don’t impact our day-to-day lives.” 

When local nonprofits need support, Yumans have stepped up. People suffer in the extreme summer heat, and nonprofits who help them were running out of water bottles. In response, the community pooled together and delivered pallets of water, Kahl said. 

The one effect that she criticized was the negative media attention that has repeatedly claimed that Yuma has been invaded. 

“People are seeing these reports on TV saying we’ve been overrun. That’s not true,” she said. 

Yuma’s population seasonally increases with RV tourism. The Chamber of Commerce, Kahl said, is doing their best to reassure them the city remains safe.

The mayor of Yuma did not respond to requests for comment.

Nonprofits picking up the slack

The center set up a series of tent clinics where they conduct COVID-19 tests, medical checks, as well as offer food and Wi-Fi. There’s even what Alex Bejarano, the center’s public relations director, called a “makeshift travel agency,” another tent, this one stocked with workers on laptops helping folks like Yohadner and Maria book flights to their ultimate destinations. 

It’s been seven days a week, with staff constantly attending to complicated logistical, infrastructural, medical and personal challenges. 

The center has spent about $3.5 million so far, and expects the buses with families and lone travelers escaping violence and economic collapse to keep rolling in. It’s not humane or sustainable, Aguirre, the center’s CEO, said.

The makeshift medical triage, processing, and travel center set up in the parking lot of the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton, Arizona.

In March, Democrat Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema secured $150 million for FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program to support nonprofit organizations sheltering migrants. That money also came with increased funding for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and more surveillance technology. 

FEMA is behind on paying the center’s reimbursable expenses, while government red tape excludes certain expenses from ever being recouped. The center foots the bill for some prescription medication or, in at least one instance, cremating the remains of a family member who died in the desert. 

FEMA referred requests for comment to the Department of Homeland Security, noting that the agency’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program “supplements and expands ongoing work of local non-governmental organizations to meet the needs of local governments with regard to migrants.” 

DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

Joanna Williams is the executive director of Kino Border Initiative. She works with migrants in northern México but frequently coordinates with U.S.-based organizations. Each place along the borderlands is different, managing its own reality, she said, stressing that regardless of unique local issues, multi-level coordination at the city, county and state level is key to effective solutions.

“Local governments can create space for community orgs to be more sustainable,” she said.  

Williams added that FEMA funds are “absolutely critical” to support local nonprofits. However, she cautioned that welcome centers “shouldn’t be taken over by the government because there is extraordinary wisdom and care that can be channeled through NGOs (non-governmental organizations) more effectively.” 

Local nonprofits, she said, “should be part of the tapestry.”

Aaron Rippenkroeger is executive director for the International Rescue Committee, which runs a shelter in Phoenix where some of the migrants from the Yuma center are subsequently shuttled. Most go directly to the airport.

For a plan to be effective, he said, it has to be strategic about getting ahead of the problem with long-term resources and financial support, so people on the ground aren’t working in constant crisis mode. Scrambling for assistance is not sustainable, especially when political winds are consistently changing and nonprofits can’t rely on steady support, funding, or predictable migration patterns.

“Consistent, forward-looking funding is needed for border shelters and communities to bring humanitarian reception to scale and to reduce the risks posed to families released without reception support,” he said “Border shelters have provided a more humane welcome for asylum-seekers for decades.”

The politics of more wall

The response across both the Trump and the Biden administrations has been effectively the same: maintain the lockdown and continue the expulsions. 

The Biden administration has loosened some restrictions, and some nationalities or particularly vulnerable people are exempt from the automatic pushbacks. 

But long-term solutions from the government have been slow to come. After more than a year of wrangling in the courts, the Biden administration recently announced that they were shutting down the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. The Trump-era program allowed asylum-seekers to levy claims for protective status, but forced them to wait in México, in often extremely dangerous conditions, as their cases limped through the courts. 

The Biden administration has also sought to end Title 42, but has been blocked by the courts. 

Title 42 is a public health order initially implemented in the early months of the pandemic to block migrants from accessing ports of entry. Even as much of the country has completely opened back up, Title 42 remains in place today, pushing asylum-seekers to cross the border in the desert to seek protection.

Biden’s administration recently announced a plan to use DHS funding to finish portions of the wall, mostly small gaps left by the Trump administration’s construction blitz. In Yuma, there are numerous small gaps that are targeted for closure by this winter, according to Myles Traphagen, Borderlands Program Coordinator for the Wildlands Network. 

The problem, Traphagen said, is that “No one is going to come all the way from Ethiopia or Ukraine, hit the wall, and say, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll turn back.’” 

They’ll find some way around it, he said, and then the Border Patrol, and the Yuma community, will still face the same problem they are dealing with now.

“It’s a political panic that the administration is exhibiting,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., told Arizona Luminaria. “They think that they’re going to mollify the extremists by discussing the wall or allowing parts of it to be done.”

“This is a red meat issue for the extremists. And they’re going to continue to use it because every time you respond, they up the ante to something else,” he said. “Every election cycle, Democrats fall into this pattern over and over again.” 

Grijalva also called the ongoing use of Title 42 hypocritical, in that pandemic restrictions have been relaxed, or completely abandoned, for much of the population, but are still enforced against asylum-seekers.

Kelly faces reelection in November against Blake Masters, a first-time candidate, endorsed by Trump, who wants to build more wall and triple the size of the Border Patrol. The Stanford-educated lawyer’s libertarian background is lauded by conservatives, however, he’s drawn fierce criticism for spreading anti-Semitic conspiracies about both world wars and favorably quoting a Nazi.

“Title 42 shouldn’t be around forever,” Kelly said, however, cautioning that “until DHS and this administration comes up with a plan on how they’re going to handle the increased numbers, they shouldn’t lift Title 42.” 

There are other issues, both physical and legal, besides the futility of the wall as a deterrent. The Colorado River is constantly shifting, and the ground is not fit for solid construction. 

“You can’t build there,” Traphagen said. “The area is only for agriculture. There’s no zoning.” 

The Cocopah Tribe, which holds land along the border outside of Yuma — close to the gaps where many migrants have been turning themselves in — has also blocked efforts to build any wall on their land.  

Gov. Doug Ducey recently ordered used shipping containers to be installed as border barriers. Within a day of construction, the containers, criticized for being easy to scale, were already toppling over. A spokesperson for Ducey’s office said that the containers were pulled over.

Why are Biden and Ducey bothering with filling these gaps? “It’s because of Republican primary candidates standing in front of gaps in the wall saying, ‘I will finish the wall,” Traphagen said. “Plugging those up helps to neuter their arguments. Otherwise, it effectively does nothing outside of political optics.” 

On Facebook, Ducey praised the state’s quick construction spree, explaining that the state had sealed off five of the gaps in less than two weeks. “We did it. Yuma is safer today,” Ducey wrote.

Fernie Quiroz, a Yuma resident and director of the Arizona-California Humanitarian Coalition, has been heading to the border nearly every morning for more than a year to offer migrants turning themselves in a bit of water and food. He also cleans up behind them after Border Patrol forces them to leave behind many of their personal belongings. Quiroz doesn’t see filling in gaps as helping. 

“Why can’t they go to a port of entry?” Fernie says. “Isn’t that what they’re for?”

Busing migrants to D.C.

Another proposed solution to the influx of migrants is quickly busing them out of state. In what was criticized as a political stunt from Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas was the first state to start shipping asylum-seekers, by bus, from South Texas to Washington D.C. 

In June, Ducey signed a border security bill that included an allocation of $10 million to bus migrants from Yuma to the nation’s capital. Busloads of migrants from Texas are also now heading to New York. 

As of Aug. 14, the state has spent more than $3 million, with each bus costing taxpayers about $82,000. Ducey’s communications director, C.J. Karamargin, said that as of Aug. 18, they had bused 1,494 people to Washington.

While Ducey did not respond to a request for comment, Karamargin explained that the state’s goal is “to help alleviate the burden” on Yuma and the state. “We want to make it as difficult as possible to enter Arizona illegally,” he said.

When asked about people legally seeking asylum like the majority of migrants crossing into the Yuma area, he said those policies should be addressed by the federal government. The White House did not respond to requests for comment. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded in a July New York Post report to questions about Arizona and Texas busing migrants to DC and New York City, by saying that “using migrants as a political pawn is just wrong.”

Aguirre, the Yuma center’s CEO, supports the busing, describing them as comfortable and well-outfitted with food, EMTs and a bathroom. But, as some of the experiences of people riding the buses comes to light, the picture is less sanguine.

Ariadna Phillips is the founder of South Bronx Mutual Aid and New York City ICE Watch, which has been working with volunteers to coordinate responses and provide migrants with basic needs as they are dropped off in the city.

“In many cases, migrants did not want to be sent to New York,” Phillips said.

Some people have been so distressed that they’d sneak off the bus in the middle of the trip. 

“They are disoriented. They are riding blind,” she said. She added that they are “effectively human-trafficked.” 

She’s seen no evidence of any medical professionals on the buses, and described people arriving to the city experiencing medical emergencies. She said they’re extremely hungry. They may not have eaten in days. 

Karamargin said that migrants from Arizona are only going to D.C., not New York.

“We spring into action as soon as we hear a bus is coming,” Phillips said. “We provide solidarity, dignity, compassion, and help them navigate.” 

Some people are weary and don’t trust the help. “They’ve been dehumanized and just take off,” she said. “Their independent decision-making has been stripped from them.”

A pregnant woman and her partner are given priority as Border Patrol processes about 400 asylum-seekers outside of Yuma, Arizona. Credit: John Washington

A helping hand

“I don’t want this to be normal,” Aguirre says. 

Leaders at local, state and federal levels have offered temporary fixes when those on the ground say they need collaborative action now — not six months from now — on long-term solutions.

“Go back to policy makers,” Aguirre says. “People should be able to seek asylum in a safer way, and not have to expose men, women, and children to the dangers of the desert.”

Exasperation permeates the medical center, from the parking lot turned triage, to the intake center, where too many questions have no easy answers, to Aguirre’s office where the woman in charge with a thousand things to do has learned to focus on one thing, one person at a time.

Aguirre’s juggling a tight schedule, always preparing for the next emergency. But even when touching on tragedy, she’s calm. In the measured tone of a history teacher, she shares lessons about the lives at stake.

“A child that drowns in the canal. Nine-month-pregnant women crossing the desert. That should not be normal,” she says, her voice hardening. “I’m hoping the Biden administration will step up.”

In recent days, more children have drowned as they try to make it into the U.S. Entering into the country is not their last obstacle, however, as the urgently necessary work of NGOs and volunteers makes clear. Asylum-seekers especially need more than just a locked door or a hasty bureaucratic processing system run by Border Patrol agents primarily trained to make arrests. 

“Civil society has the expertise and the infrastructure to help the administration achieve its goals for a safe, orderly, and humane migration processes that respects the legal right to seek asylum,” said Rippenkroeger, the executive director for the International Rescue Committee in Arizona.

“We hope the administration will continue to invest in this partnership and follow through on its stated goals,” he said.

As they wait for confirmation of their flight, Yohadner and Maria finally catch up on texting their family members that they are OK, in Yuma and released from Border Patrol custody. They lean back and describe some of the details of their past months.

After an exhausting trip from Venezuela to northern México, they had to fork over another $350 dollars to make the final crossing into the U.S. On a bus ride just south of the border, armed men jumped on, ordered them and six other migrants to get off, and stuffed them into vans. 

The men took each of the migrants’ phones, turned them off, and said, “You are being kidnapped.” They added that they would all be fine if they just handed over $2,000 a piece.

The men put cameras in the bathroom to watch Maria. They sequestered another one of the women alone for hours at one point. The kidnappers threatened and beat some of the migrants who resisted. Finally, scrounging the money from family and friends, Maria and Yohadner paid $4,000 and were released. 

A couple days later they crossed into the U.S. and turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents to ask for asylum. 

They’re grateful for Quiroz, who gave them water as they waited for Border Patrol. They say their treatment in custody was respectful, especially considering what they had just gone through. And they are impressed, even overwhelmed, by their reception at the center. 

“Who are these people treating us so well?” Yohadner asks, shaking his head in wonder.

“This is what makes your country strong,” he says.

Yohadner doesn’t know what will happen when they make it to Utah. 

Sitting in the Yuma parking lot turned triage-center, 3,500 miles from Venezuela, staring at a tent full of strangers speaking languages he doesn’t understand, he settles on knowing he’s here now. Safe and with Maria.

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...