Arizona Border Town Lacks Sufficient Transportation to Handle Migrant Surge, Mayor Says

The latest surge of migrants coming into the U.S. is putting a strain on one Arizona border town that has limited transportation options for helping migrants move on to their next destination.

Yuma, a city that the U.S. Census Bureau estimated had about 98,000 people in its 2019 count and about 213,000 people in the wider Yuma County, is familiar with migrants flowing in and out of the region. But Douglas Nicholls, the city's mayor, said fewer transportation options are available to migrants now than during the last surge the city observed in 2019.

"Greyhound's presence here is a bench," Nicholls told Newsweek. "There's no station, and the only way to buy tickets is online or through your phone. The other shuttle services will take cash, but they're small vans."

Nicholls said Yuma had four Greyhound buses traveling in and out of the city each day in 2019, but only one bus currently is making daily rounds, which makes securing seats difficult.

The mayor told Newsweek he first learned of the expected surge early this year from local Border Patrol officials, with whom he said the Yuma community has a "really strong relationship." Migrants began arriving in Yuma on February 15. Nicholls estimated that 20 migrants arrived on that first day, and about 1,400 migrants have passed through Yuma in total over the last month.

Border wall in Arizona
Transportation is one of the key struggles for Yuma amid the Arizona city's experience handling the latest surge in migrants. In the photo, construction along the new United States-Mexican border wall halted approximately 15 miles east of Sasabe, as seen on January 28, 2021, in the Coronado National Forest, Arizona. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Nicholls compared the current surge with the one in 2019, during which 5,200 migrants passed through the city in fewer than three months.

"That might not sound like a big number, but when you compare the size of our community with the size of other communities, it's very significant," he said.

While local nonprofits were able to assist with putting together a temporary shelter system in Yuma two years ago, COVID-19 restrictions and a lack of fundraising prevented those nonprofits from being able to contribute in the same way this year. Some of the nonprofits are helping transport the migrants and test them for COVID-19, which Nicholls said is helping.

Nicholls said he is feeling comfortable about the access to COVID-19 tests for migrants arriving in Yuma. A visit from federal officials earlier this week, during which they engaged in discussions about Yuma's experience with the surge and walked through some of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resources available, served as another positive sign.

But what Nicholls said he most wants to see is a re-evaluation of the federal strategy for migrant releases.

"This is a federal issue, not a Yuma issue. We need a federal response, not a Yuma response," Nicholls said.

"It's great to get money and all that in town for the support, but it's just not even sustainable from a volunteer perspective," he said, adding that the nonprofits Yuma officials work with "do have other missions.

"My ask to the government at this point is to re-evaluate how they release, and where they release," Nicholls said. Releasing migrants into a smaller community like Yuma "just isn't effective because we end up turning around and transporting those people to other communities" that have more resources at their disposal, he said.

"I really am pushing for a policy change that says, Border Patrol or ICE won't be releasing large groups of people in communities under, say, a million people," Nicholls said. "At that point, I think you can expect to have some robust transportation, some robust infrastructure and some robust nonprofit networks."

For now, Nicholls said the number of migrants arriving in Yuma appears to be close to the numbers seen during 2019. While that year's surge lasted for about three months, Nicholls said he isn't sure Yuma's experience with the surge will be as short this time around.

"To rely upon our community to do the work—well, we already had things we were doing. And there's no discussion about that. There's no, 'Hey, this is our expectation.' It's just an assumption that that's we're going to be able to do," Nicholls said. "And in the long term, I don't think we're going to be able to sustain that."