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How immigration politics clash with reality in the swing state of Arizona

NOGALES — For nearly 80 years, La Cinderella has sat just 500 feet from the international border between the United States and Mexico.

The store is hard to miss. Its pink walls stand high on the street corner, glittery shoes and sequined bows sparkle in the storefront windows and the colorful mural of Evelia Kory, the woman who started it all, decorates the view coming down from the border's port of entry.

For decades, two storefronts owned by the same family have enjoyed a customer base that is overwhelmingly made up of residents of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora just across the way.

"We value the fact that we are two nations that are mixed, and we thrive because of that," said Evan Kory, grandson of Evelia and now one of the owners of both La Cinderella and Kory's bridal store down the street. "We've been open for 77 years. So we've seen generations of customers where at our bridal store, the grandmother, the mother and the daughter have gotten their dresses."

By being right along the border, and just a few feet away from the Nogales port of entry, Kory and his family have seen the implications of border politics play out at their door.

They recall the days before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when Mexican nationals could cross over with ease to get groceries or shop at their store. They recall when borders completely shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, devastating their store's revenue. Then, in December 2023, when the Biden administration closed the Lukeville Port in Arizona due to staffing, Kory and his family feared that Nogales could be next. And now, inconsistent wait times at the border mean that loyal customers may wait 3 hours just to visit La Cinderella.

"I think for our federal government, they need to acknowledge that the whole border economy is dependent on this binational way of life," Kory said. "... It's frustrating that there's a lot of arguing back and forth and very little action and planning."

Immigration has emerged as a top campaign talking point for the two leading presidential candidates. President Biden has spent the last several months advocating for a tougher stance on border security, while former President Donald Trump has painted a dire picture of pressures at the southern border.

Both candidates need Arizona's enthusiasm this fall. The border swing state helped Trump win in 2016 but delivered Biden to the White House by about 10,000 votes in 2020. Still, in the places most affected by the rhetoric and policies, voters feel left behind by both political parties and fear an election year will only delay any hope of long-term solutions for their towns and the families looking to come through.

The pressure is building

From Kory's storefront, he has seen a rising number of asylum seekers come through the Nogales port over the last several months — a newer challenge for Arizona, a state where border politics and immigration have always been top of mind.

To start the year, Arizona's Tucson sector became the busiest region for Border Patrol encounters. The crossings are putting pressure on Pima County officials, who have partnered with the city of Tucson and the non-governmental organization Casa Alitas to help shelter asylum seekers from Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties until they can head to their next destination to meet their sponsors.

"They're fleeing from something that is dangerous and tragic. And we need to have compassion around that. At the same time, we have to be responsible with the resources that we have in those communities that are along the border," said Rob Elias, president of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "To welcome these migrants and these asylum seekers in — it takes resources, it takes funds."

In July of last year, Tucson received $12 million from a Federal Emergency Management Agency program started during the Trump administration to help shelter migrants. That money was scheduled to run out on March 31, prompting the warnings of layoffs at the local sheltering nonprofits and concerns about so-called "street releases" of asylum seekers brought in by Customs and Border Patrol across all three counties as soon as April 1.

In an 11th-hour save, lawmakers in Washington approved $650 million to replenish FEMA's program. Pima County officials say the Homeland Security Department has given enough "assurances" to believe the county will receive a minimum of $12 million — but that is only enough for three months, and that funding has not yet been distributed. Democratic officials in Pima County and the city of Tucson have vowed they will not use their general government funds to stave off any potential lapse in federal funds.
"There is going to be less funds available for cities throughout the country to handle the responsibility that should be a federal responsibility," said Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, noting that Congress replenished the program with 20% less money than it did last fiscal year. "So pouring more money ... into this particular issue of having to deal in a humane way with asylum seekers, for cities and towns throughout the country, is not going to do the job."

Residents do not want the border "shut"

In an election year, there is little hope on the ground that there will be a solution from party leaders. Community leaders soured after Senate Republicans who wanted to show loyalty to Trump tanked a bipartisan immigration deal in Congress.

"We have a Republican candidate for president who said, 'Don't solve this issue for Joe Biden.' He sees this as an issue that he can run on," said Bruce Bracker, supervisor of Santa Cruz County, about Trump. "But at the end of the day, the people who we elect, we expect them to do their jobs today not to wait for 6 months to do their jobs."

Others are frustrated with the Biden administration's current reshuffling of staff, which resulted in the decision to close the Lukeville port, and the president's expanded use of parole.

One political talking point that has slowly become more bipartisan and doesn't resonate among border communities is the call to "shut down" the border.

"I think that statement is one of the statements that bothers us the most. When politicians say, 'We're going to shut down the border,' we're like, are you nuts? You can't shut down the border with $700 billion worth of cross-border business that we do with Mexico in the United States," said Jaime Chamberlain, board member of the Nogales Economic Development Foundation. "They're using that statement when they should be saying, 'We need to fix our immigration issue.' But they say shut down the border. You cannot shut down the border."

Chamberlain emphasized that this goes beyond partisan politics — the responsibility is on the federal government to address the issues that have come down on small rural communities.

"As if the border itself was the problem. We are a value to our country. We're not a problem," Chamberlain said. "Immigration policies are problems that have become our problem by inertia."

Still, Chamberlain, Bracker and others want to see more help and support for the border communities and organizations managing the flow of migration, such as Casa Alitas, and they're calling for a solution that spans more than just months at a time.

What happens when the money runs out

Largely with the support of FEMA funds, Casa Alitas has opened multiple migrant shelters, including converting a former call center in Tucson that now beds up to 400 asylum seekers from all over the world.

"I know more about geography now than I did when I was in high school and I was graded on it," said Diego Piña Lopez, director of Casa Alitas' asylum seekers program. "We spent through the funding a lot faster than we planned. And that's one of the challenging things, is having a set bucket to allocate to versus recognizing these ebb and flows occur for everybody across the border."

The asylum seekers don't stay in Tucson very long, often only 6 to 72 hours until they can get to an airport or other mode of transportation to reach their sponsors. Casa Alitas boasts of having a full-service operation to help those arriving get new clothing, some food to eat and medical care. On rare occasions, Casa Alitas helps purchase plane tickets.

But Casa Alitas staff and volunteers spent the month of March bracing for a possible reduction in funding. Out of 60 employees, less than 20 prepared to keep their jobs in April. Staff pivoted to feeding the residents of the shelter Ramen noodles to cut food costs.

"My concern is, as we see the street releases coming through, who's going to help support them in their time of need?" Piña Lopez said. "I'm thinking a lot of folks might find themselves in homeless shelters, but those homeless shelters have no experience in this case management that we do."

Piña Lopez said it's an added uncertainty what hour Border Patrol will release folks into communities.

"Last night we were looking at a newborn being released with their mother late at night. Our staff supposedly stops at 8 [p.m.]," Piña Lopez said. "But sometimes you have those situations, how can somebody go off of work, clock out and then see a newborn left on the streets?"

Casa Alitas has recruited the services of other local businesses in port towns like Nogales and Douglas to help fill the gaps and ensure those released by Border Patrol are not then extorted and taken somewhere other than their intended final destination.

One of the businesses stepping in to help is Transporte Directo, a shuttle service right on the edge of the southern border in Douglas.

"We give the service to whoever needs it, we don't discriminate," Flor Martinez of Transporte Directo told NPR in Spanish. In her year working there, she has arranged her drivers to take folks to Casa Alitas and a nearby church also operating as a shelter.

Where Trump and Biden fit in

Martinez said she hears from people who do not want Biden reelected, "precisely because he has given priority to the people immigrating.

"And whether it is Donald Trump or someone else, they want another person," Martinez said, adding that she is a resident and that without the right to vote she doesn't have a personal opinion.

But one of her drivers has a different point of view.

"You have to vote for Biden," said Moises Jimarez, a lifelong Democrat and driver of Transporte Directo, who has helped transport the migrants to Tucson. Speaking in Spanish, he focused on the dozens of state and federal charges against the former president. "How can it be that a criminal can be president?"

The frustrations over the politicization of the immigration conversation reach Tucson. Rob Elias, president of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he is both concerned by rhetoric of prejudice coming from GOP leaders and wishes more was done to recognize the strain placed on local communities needing to care for those incoming.

"We are highly aware that the divisive language that former President Trump has used around border issues can be very detrimental to our way of life here," Elias said. But he wants to see more from Biden and Democrats, too. "The governor [Katie Hobbs] fully knows if the Biden administration does not take action — it is her job to secure that border. And that's been frustrating."

Trump has vowed to bring back and expand some of his most controversial policies if he wins in November, including "the largest deportation operation" in history and expanding detention facilities. Trump has said he wants to give the National Guard and local law enforcement authority to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants.

For his part, Biden has argued it is Congress that needs to act to fully change the state of immigration. To take a tougher stance on border policy, Biden negotiated the now-stalled bill with senators that would have tightened rules for asylum, expanded detention facilities and provided more money to hire border agents.

But the conversation isn't going away anytime soon — regardless of who wins the presidency.

"We're going have to wait and see what November yields. And regardless of who it is, life will continue," Elias said. "And we still have to continue to make the communities that we live in, the communities that we play in, the community that we work in, the best that they possibly can be, regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office."

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