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Yuma County Sheriff provides perspective on immigrant surge

Courtesy YCSO

Yuma County’s Sheriff says he’s pleased Title 42 won’t be expiring any time soon but will continue to push the federal government to do more.

Sheriff Leon Wilmot recently sat down with KAWC to discuss the situation along the border, both past and present.

Sheriff Wilmot has served the county for decades, as a deputy and as a supervisor, before ultimately winning election to become the county’s top lawman.

Over the years, Wilmot says, he’s seen a lot of changes along the border, few of them good.

“You look back on 2005, when we were going through the same scenario. We were the worst in the nation with over 138,000 crossing our international boundary of about 112 miles with Mexico,” he said. “So, we were the worst in the nation back in 2005. Now you fast forward, in the last six months there's been over 170,000 people that have crossed just in Yuma County.”

And, the Sheriff says those figures don’t include the 10,000 to 20,000 undocumented immigrants who enter the country undetected through Yuma County’s eastern desert.

Wilmot tells us Trump-era restrictions, including Title 42, helped stem the flow of undocumented immigrants, but that changed with the new administration.

The Sheriff says cartels and criminal organizations are making easy money right now, and current policies are helping.

“The cartels don't have to invest a penny in any of the human smuggling," Wilmot said. "Their product is walking up to them and paying them to cross, so the cartels control every bit of what's going on. Same with over in Baja. So it's more of a human product and it's cheap and easy for them. They just tell 'em when to cross.”

And, Wilmot says, the human smuggling is contributing to the trafficking of dangerous drugs.

“At the same time, it ties up Border Patrol to be able to smuggle in their hard narcotics out further east where there are no Border Patrol agents because they're tied up with processing individuals every day,” the sheriff said.

Sheriff Wilmot says it’s a problem statewide, and for the entire country.

“50 percent of the hard narcotics in this country are coming across the borders in Arizona. 50 percent of anything that you see that law enforcement has intercepted and seized throughout the US, 50 percent of that has come across our border in Arizona,” he told us. “And that in of itself, is just the cartels exploiting not only the sparse ability for Border Patrol to be doing their job, it's poisoning our kids and our family members throughout the whole of the United States.”

The sheriff says he recognizes the humanitarian side of the issue, but also recognizes changes in those making the crossing illegally.

“They've not been like your typical scenario that you see in the media where these people have been walking for months at a time to try to get to the border,” he told us. “All of these individuals are flying into Mexico City and then flying from there to Mexicali. Then they're taking a bus or a cab from the airport in Mexicali down towards Algodones, and then they're walking across the river.”

Still, Wilmot says he is glad the Regional Center for Border Health has stepped in to coordinate health screenings and transportation for hundreds of asylum seekers.

“We are fortunate that we have a non-governmental organization with the regional Center for Border Health assisting Border Patrol, because each and every day they're able to relieve some of the pressure from their housing over there,” he said.

You can hear more of our conversation with Sheriff Wilmot in an upcoming KAWC News special report, “On Topic: Title 42.”

Listen for that special Friday, June 3, at 9 a.m.

Lisa Sturgis’ return to KAWC brings her journalistic career full circle. Uncle Bob Hardy gave Lisa her first exposures to reporting back in the 1980s. She went on to spend more than three decades in TV news before making the decision to come home to NPR.
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