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U.S. Senators hear local leaders' perspectives on the border crisis

YUMA, Ariz. (KAWC) - Eight U.S. senators spent two days getting a firsthand look at the problems created by the immigration crisis playing out along the United States’ southern border.

It began with a day in El Paso, followed by another day here in Yuma.

Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas organized the tour so colleagues from different sides of the aisle could view the situation from a similar perspective.

Joining them for the trip, Arizona’s Mark Kelly, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahama, Chris Coons from Delaware, Kansas’s Jerry Moran, and Chris Murphy came all the way from Connecticut.

The senators came to see for themselves what the people of Yuma County experience every day, and they heard stories from those dealing with the problems generated by the unprecedented surge in border crossings.

“The worst I've ever had this last calendar year had, 71 people died in my desert because they've been abandoned out there in the desert.”

That was how Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot described what happens to the least fortunate migrants.

The Sheriff also told Senators about the strain the influx is putting on his deputies and his jail and lamented about how little the federal government is reimbursing this office for its efforts. He says it’s as little as five cents on the dollar.

Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls told the Senators the economic impact extends beyond the Sheriff’s Office.

“And in our community ag represents 70% of our economy, 70%. So when it has a small hiccup, it's a big hiccup. It's not something that we can take lightly.”

A gap in fencing near the Morelos Dam in Southwest Yuma County has become the most used crossing point, Nicholls says its proximity to fields poses a problem.

“The Morelos Dam area is an example of an area that’s directly accessible to the fields and when people come across the border and set up in the fields and maybe take a bath in the canal and all that, it affects the ability to have effective crop rotation and it could affect that economy and those that really depend upon that. It's not just the farmers, there's almost 50,000 people during the winter that are involved in the winter harvest.”

There’s also an impact most civilians aren’t very aware of, but Yuma County Supervisor Jonathan Lines cautions, the immigration crisis could impact our national security.

“The southern border has to be shut down, especially during live fire exercises, which negatively impacts our ability to have military readiness. They've expressed that concern,” Lines told the senators.

The Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton is working to address those concerns while attending to the health and well-being of asylum seekers at the same time.

Here’s what President and CEO Amanda Aguirre told the Senators:

“Our process is very simple. We stepped up as a nonprofit organization to take care of their families, coming in a very humanitarian way so they will not be released, and decreasing the amount. And that has been our mission and we started two years ago, so families will be safe, the community will be safe, we’ll be providing safety support for the families so they can make it to their final destination.”

Yuma has no shelters to house immigrants outside the already over-crowded Border Patrol detention facility, so it must send them elsewhere.

The RCBH coordinates it all, from health screenings and vaccines to arranging transportation.

The organization now runs nine buses a day between Yuma and Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport to get them to their final destinations.

“We start at 9:00 o'clock in the morning and the last bus from here to Phoenix is at 2:30 in the afternoon.”

If each bus seats 55, and all the buses are full, which they usually are, that means RCBH is sending nearly 500 asylum seekers a day on to their final destinations elsewhere in the US.

And yet, Yuma Sector Border Patrol’s facilities remain near capacity. In recent months, it’s run out of room a number of times, leaving agents no choice but to release detainees out onto the streets without a way to secure transportation for the next leg of their journey.

Mayor Nicholls told KAWC last month, those capacity limitations are the reason the City of Yuma’s been under a state of emergency for more than a year.

Sen. Cornyn says that alone proves action is needed.

“We've never seen the influx of humanity like we're seeing now across the border, we've never seen the number of drug overdose deaths that we've seen this last year. How much longer are we going to put up with it?”

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut says it’s clear, in its current state, this type of immigration cannot continue.

“You know, I'm proud of the fact that we welcome people here who are fleeing persecution, but our asylum system is not working, period stop and there has to be a better way to welcome people here in a way that does not overwhelm our southern border .”

The Senators, armed with fresh perspective, now head back to Washington to tackle an issue that hasn’t seen meaningful reform legislation in decades.

The last major immigration bill passed in 1986 during the Reagan Era, with a smaller bill clearing Congress in 1990 under former President George H.W. Bush.

Since then, several attempts have been made, but none have managed to survive outside their originating chamber.

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.