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To An Outsider, There Are No Obvious Signs Of An Emergency Unfolding In Yuma

Water cascades down a fountain at the center of a roundabout in the heart of Yuma’s historic downtown district.

It’s near the time of afternoon photographers call the golden hour. Softening sunlight slants onto the east side of Main Street, where people will soon gather for dinner or take in some local art.

To an outsider, there’s no obvious sign that there is an emergency unfolding in the border city. Diana Labarge has lived in Yuma since age 3. She hadn’t heard about the mayor’s declaration and was upset about missing the news.

“Hello, give us [a] heads up. We want to welcome these people,” she said.

The people Labarge wanted to greet are migrants being dropped off in Yuma by the Border Patrol, which said it apprehended more than 1,000 people in the area in a matter of days.

City officials said roughly 1,300 migrants have been released within Yuma, since federal authorities announced there wasn’t enough room to take people elsewhere.

Months after President Donald Trump declared an emergency on the U.S. Mexico border, the mayor of Yuma has officially joined in. Douglas Nicholls, a Republican, sounded the alarm this week when the area’s only shelter was already packed with migrants and U.S. Border Patrol planned to drop off more.

“They’re families. They’re little kids. Their country is so bad. They’re escaping bad society,” Labarge said, as she and her sister took a break from shopping next to a colorful mural.

The idea that migrants should be welcomed and cared for is one school of thought in Yuma, said Nicholls.

“And then the other side is those that are frustrated with immigration issues — the lack of modifications to our federal process as well as our federal laws,” he said.

Nicholls said he declared a local emergency to prevent a large homeless population from suddenly appearing in the city and to protect its residents.

One can’t easily see the emergency in Yuma because the nonprofits and faith groups helping migrants have so far been able to keep it at a shelter in a secret location. This will soon change, Nichols said, when the groups become overwhelmed by the volume of releases and migrants, needing to get to connect with family or sponsors in other parts of the country, are left stranded in the streets.

“We need to protect our community, as well as we need to make sure that the men and women and the children that are being released are taken care of, and we can’t do that. We don’t have the capability to actually do that,” he said.

"We need to protect our community, as well as we need to make sure that the men and women and the children that are being released are taken care of, and we can’t do that. We don’t have the capability to actually do that." — Yuma Mayor Douglas Nicholls

The city is not putting up any cash to help the migrants, Nicholls said. But the mayor wants the drop-offs in Yuma to stop. People should instead get released in larger cities further inside the country, where it's easier for them to access transportation to other states.

But what if it doesn’t happen, or if the federal government won’t step in?

“There’ll just be, potentially, civil unrest where people are upset at the level of homeless people,” he said.

The Stars and Stripes, Homeland Security and Border Patrol flags blow in the wind a few miles south of City Hall, near the entrance to Yuma sector headquarters

“We’ve been stretching our resources for a long time now. And it’s gotten to a breaking point,” said Agent Jose Garibay III.

The Yuma sector’s stations have been routinely full of detained migrants, many of whom cannot legally be held for much time, Garibay said. But this week agents were especially busy, having taken in more than 1,000 people in only three days.

“So that just kind of highlights the crisis that we’re experiencing here,” he said.

Border Patrol releases migrants in Yuma if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t have enough space to bring them to places like Phoenix.

“So being that they’re full, we’re full, we’re forced to release [migrants] into the community,” Garibay said.

At the south end of Yuma’s historic downtown district sits Bandanna Books. Luella and Steve Kaznack kept fans inside running to stay cool while they work amongst seemingly countless rows of packed shelves.

The Kaznacks support the mayor’s decision to declare an emergency. Luela said it’s terrible the situation got this far.  

“Build that wall and shut that border down,” she said before her husband gave his take.

“First, shut that border down and let these people, let em know we’re serious, and there is nothing here for them to get for nothing,” he said

The Kaznacks want Yuma to help its existing homeless population, have immigration laws enforced, and Congress to get rid of loopholes in the asylum process.

“[Migrants are] here to take advantage of the system. I have no problem with that. I take advantage of the system. But I’m a Goddamn United States citizen,” Steve Kaznack said.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has said his office will do everything in its power to help Yuma.

The head of Arizona’s Emergency Management Division said assistance can happen without the governor stepping in, but city officials have yet to make a specific request.  

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.