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Arizona first responders face funding issues compounded by migrants

Ongoing surges of migrants crossing the border have put strain on local police and fire departments who have continued to have funding issues.
Arizona first responders face funding issues compounded by migrants
Posted at 4:16 PM, Mar 15, 2024

On the streets of San Luis, Arizona, you'll see a constant trickle of footsteps — and not all of them come from the city's 40,000 residents.

On average, the City of San Luis says more than 3 million cars and more than 2.5 million pedestrians cross through their port of entry. With all those people, it means keeping the streets safe is even tougher for first responders.

Sgt. Emmanuel Botello with the San Luis Police Department says his officers are responding to the border every single day. Calls at the port can range from DUIs to drug offenses to even traffic violations. But Sgt. Botello adds that calls to the port of entry or border fence area typically go up if the area is experiencing a surge in migrant crossings, which have been up and down over the past few years in Arizona and other border states

"On average, we respond to port three to four times each day," explained Sgt. Botello, who acknowledged it's a big commitment for such a small department.

But police aren't just responding to ports of entry. Since it's a border community, there's always a need for officers to respond to incidents that happen at the border or port if a crime is committed.

"There is no real gap between the fence and the community," explained Sgt. Botello. "Meaning within minutes, you would have a group of 10 to 15 illegal immigrants scattered all over the residential area. We would have break-ins into homes. We'd have people who would steal bikes or anything that could move around faster or in an area to conceal themselves to try and get away from Border Patrol... While many of those are immigrants just trying to hide, again, it's our priority to ensure the safety of our residents."

Fortunately, for the San Luis Police Department, a grant through the Arizona Department of Homeland Security called Operation Stonegarden allows officers to help with border security on their days off, according to Sgt. Botello.

But the San Luis Fire Department doesn't have that option.

SEE MORE: Scripps News Reports: 48 Hours on the Border

"Somebody has to pay for it, and right now, it's the city," explained SLFD Chief Angel Ramirez. "It's really easy to get backed up! And not just that. What's hard for us is that we are not getting reimbursed from the federal government or the state government."

Chief Ramirez says although crossings are down in the Yuma area at the moment, it's peak season for seasonal workers, so catching their breath is almost impossible.

"When it does get busy, it's hard on us because when they call us to the levee or the port of entry or any emergencies, we have to take those units out. We have three ambulances and our turnaround time to the hospital is two hours. So that ambulance doesn't get into service for about two hours. And we still have to continue providing emergency services to our residents here in San Luis."

Chief Ramirez told Scripps News Phoenix his department responds to roughly 5,500 calls for service each year and says about 35% of those calls are for the port of entry or nearby border area.

"When they come through the border, we're the ones who help them out. We're the first people they call for help," he said.

So far, Chief Ramirez says calls for help from elected leaders have gone mostly unanswered.

"I can say right now, we haven't gotten any help," he said. "They said they're looking into it, but what they did is open their eyes because they didn't know."

Chief Ramirez says right now, SLFD is paying overtime to make sure they have at least two ambulances running that are dedicated to San Luis residents, but providing them is becoming more of a financial challenge

"They deserve the best and we continue to provide that, but I'll tell you, it's hard," he said.

SEE MORE: What happens when migrants arrive at the border wall?

Scripps News Phoenix reached out to Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, Sen. Mark Kelly and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to find out what they've done regarding the need for funding these agencies in Yuma County.

Sen. Kelly's office sent the following statement:

"Senator Kelly is concerned that local resources are being strained as Arizona's border communities continue bearing the cost of the migrant crisis. Our office is in contact with Yuma Area Fire Department representatives and is in constant communication with the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton and other stakeholders critical to managing the situation at the border. Senator Kelly will continue pressing the administration to better address the border crisis and is working in the Senate to secure more resources for Arizona."

Sen. Kelly's office also told Scripps News Phoenix last week during a meeting that they received updated information from Yuma-area fire departments about "migrant response cases and department needs."

The politician's office also says he spoke with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejando Mayorkas about concerns over Yuma County and other southern Arizona organizations running out of federal funds to respond to what's happening at the border. His office concluded by saying Sen. Kelly is seeking additional ways the federal government can support local communities with more resources and funding

Sen. Sinema's office sent the following statement:

"Senator Sinema's bipartisan border bill contained $1.4 billion, which would have helped Arizona border communities deal with the crisis. Unfortunately, partisans on both sides of the aisle rejected Senator Sinema's bipartisan solution and instead voted for the status quo and the continued chaos at the border to score political points."

Scripps News Phoenix heard from Gov. Hobbs' office Wednesday, saying she sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee expressing support for Sen. Mark Kelly and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's request asking for more federal funds to help with CBP's Shelter and Services Program.

In the letter, Gov. Hobbs said, "Arizona's border is more than a convenient location for politicians to take photo ops and stage press conferences. It's where my constituents live, work, and raise their families. My state has done everything possible to deliver safety and security to those communities, but we need Congress to step up and do its job. It is unacceptable that the security of everyday Arizonans has taken a backseat to political games in Washington, DC, forcing working families in my state to bear the burden of congressional inaction. It's time to prioritize practical solutions over political maneuvers."

To read the full letter, click here.

This story was originally published by Nick Ciletti on Scripps News Phoenix.

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