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doing the most good

During the past twelve months over 50,000 migrants have been apprehended on a 126-mile section of the Mexico-USA border called the Yuma Sector. After an apprehension, border agents collect biometric data, check for criminal histories, and provide a medical screening. After that, hundreds of migrants are freed each week with temporary legal status as they await their day in immigration court.

These releases are overwhelming border communities. Yuma, a city of 104,000 in southwest Arizona, is so flooded with migrants that Mayor Douglas Nicholls declared a state of emergency.
“Releases here have a greater impact than releases in bigger cities. We’re not in an overrun chaotic situation. We’re in a resource situation that can end up in the other if we don’t address it,” warns the mayor.

Yuma has no budget to provide food, shelter or medical care for migrants. So far, the city has received no additional state or federal funds. Yuma relies upon a coalition of nonprofits anchored by the Salvation Army.

Each day Customs and Border Protection drops off 100-200 newly released migrants at
the Yuma Salvation Army shelter. Catholic Community Services helps connect migrants with family members or sponsors. The Red Cross provides cots, blankets and basic hygiene supplies. In addition to their shelter, the Salvation Army has mobile canteens providing as many as 1,500 meals each day.

The Salvation Army’s shelter was designed for 200 with a maximum occupancy of 300. April 20, 322 migrants were dropped off. Because of the state of emergency, Yuma waives the occupancy limit, but “it’s not a healthy situation,” Mayor Nicholls says.

“This emergency we’re experiencing is completely different than a fire or a flood,” explains Jeffrey Breazeale, who oversees Salvation Army operations in Yuma County. “Usually there’s an end in sight. You have stages in the process. Here, you don’t know how long it’s going to go on, how many people are going to be dropped off.”

Some 200 locals have volunteered to help run the shelter, working staggered shifts. But they’re becoming exhausted, many have become sick. Mr. Breazeale has worked 12-18 hours a day; during the Spring he went a full month without a single day off. “How long will I do this? Until my body gives out or someone says, ‘I’ll come and give you a break,’” he says with a shrug and a sleepy smile.

The Salvation Army is still tallying the bills. Over five weeks this Spring it cost $200,000 to run the shelter, over and above the normal operating costs. “We still have to be there for our community,” Mr. Breazeale says. The nonprofit continues to provide programs for local homeless and youth, runs a food pantry, and helps poor families pay rent and utility bills. Other regional chapters and their national headquarters have helped with money, as have local donors.

Perhaps most surprising is how non-political is the situation in Yuma. Residents of every political persuasion view this as a humanitarian crisis and volunteer at the shelter. The Salvation Army shoulders the burden, doing the good it can. ~

Dan Nygaard