With reports of migrant apprehensions on the U.S.-Mexico border increasing, we wanted to ask our local Yuma Sector Border Patrol Chief who are the migrants being apprehended here in the San Luis and Yuma areas. KAWC’s Victor Calderón spoke with Chief Patrol Agent Chris Clem in his first local media interview since he took office in late December to put into perspective what an increase in apprehensions looks like here.
Chief Clem said at this time last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning, the Yuma Sector was at just more than 7,000 migrant apprehensions. This year to date, it's more than 9,500 apprehensions. In October, the Yuma Sector averaged 25 apprehensions per day. The number of apprehensions has gone up each day since and so far in March, Clem said the Yuma Sector is averaging about 400 apprehensions per day.
"We went from something reasonable to, all of a sudden, a big spike," Clem said.
The chief said the Yuma Sector historically has seen migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. That includes 2019 when a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border made international headlines.
Lately, the Yuma Sector has seen migrants from Brazil, Cuba and even Romania. Where agents on the ground used to see mostly single adult males, the sector has, in recent years, seen more family units and unaccompanied children.
As one would expect, numbers dropped significantly in 2020, due to the pandemic. In fiscal year 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, the Yuma Sector had 7,289 unaccompanied children encounters. Last year, there were only 687, a drop of 91 percent.
In 2019, there were 51,961 family unit encounters in Yuma and San Luis. Last year, 2,940 encounters, a drop of 94 percent.
Chief Clem said COVID protocols are being followed by all agents at all times.
"Certainly the well being and safety of my employees, both agents and professional staff, are critical, first and foremost, especially as the chief," Clem said.
This means following U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, including wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and social distancing when possible.
Migrants are medically screened by Border Patrol staff, though not specifically for COVID-19. Temperature checks are done. If a migrant is cleareed, he or she continues on in the Border Patrol process, Clem said. If a migrant exhibits symptoms of illness, they are reviewed further.
"If there's a problem, we're going to get them to the hospital and taken care of," Clem said.
There is no mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for Yuma Sector employees, he said, though vaccines are encouraged. Clem said he is fully vaccinated and that the sector has hosted a clinic with the Regional Center for Border Health to encourage employees to get the vaccine.
Arizona Public Media reports that, because there are no large shelters to host migrants in Yuma County, as there were in 2019, migrants are transported to shelters including Casa Alitas in Tucson. That shelter tests migrants for COVID-19 thanks to Pima County health officials.
KYMA reports local organizations including Campesinos Sin Fronteras in Somerton and San Luis have been assisting asylum seekers and RCBH has tested them for COVID-19.
Stay tuned to KAWC for more news from the border.