Yuma: `The devil’s highway’ for immigrants
YUMA, Ariz. — Evoking an Old West lawman, the 6-foot-5 sheriff with a bushy white mustache remembered how this border community lost its innocence over illegal immigration five years ago this month.
Fourteen immigrants perished crossing “the devil’s highway,” as one author dubbed it. The tragedy remains one of the most sensational incidents of unlawful desert crossings.
Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden, 59, and his deputies collected the bodies, including four Ogden put in the bed of his new pickup. Locally, the dead are known as “the Yuma 14.”
“That was the catalyst that said, `Damn, we’ve got to do something about this,'” Ogden said Wednesday.
Since then, however, illegal immigration has done nothing but get worse, according to several local officials. The Yuma County area is on a record pace for arrests of illegal immigrants, a Border Patrol agent said.
That trend makes President Bush’s scheduled visit Thursday all the more potent for local officials who dislike their area’s status as an increasingly popular smuggling corridor. The president will visit the Border Patrol based in the Yuma sector and speak about his proposed immigration reforms.
Ever since the 1990s when the federal government cracked down on illegal immigration in urban areas in California and Texas, traffic moved to the remote desert south of Tucson, where almost half of the Border Patrol apprehensions are made.
But in the last year or two, as federal officials tightened border security in the Tucson sector, smugglers and migrants began crossing at a far corner of Arizona — Yuma County — as well as through New Mexico, officials said. In the Yuma area, a migrant will typically walk two days or more through 35 to 40 miles of high desert, where temperatures this week exceeded 100 degrees. It’s a deadly gambit.
“It only makes sense,” said Ogden, a 36-year veteran of the department who has been sheriff for 14 years.
“It’s like closing all doors in a room except one,” he said. “There’s going to be that one that people come in and out of.”
Though more than 96,000 immigrants have been caught in the Yuma sector since the start of the government’s fiscal year in October, many do cross successfully, and local public services are feeling the strain, including the sole hospital in Yuma County, courts, county jail, and law agencies, officials said.
When Yuma’s other national distinction is tossed in–city officials tout Yuma as the third fastest growing area in the United States — services can be acutely pinched.
Illegal immigration is an emotional issue because residents see this corner of the country as “a chokepoint for traffic heading north,” said Ken Rosevear, executive director of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce.
Many here become irritated when a congressman from a non-border state claims he “has a solution but doesn’t have a clue as to what the real issues are,” Rosevear said. Businessmen want to see the federal government reimburse border communities for illegal immigrants’ impact on public services.
“This is the origin. This is the starting point. They are crossing the border at our county. They are not crossing the border in the Midwest or the South. This is a traffic lane for illegal immigration,” Rosevear said.
With Yuma a boomtown and a smugglers’ paradise, Yuma Regional Medical Center has been pinched. In the past, the staff saw patient loads swing with the seasons, as winter was a peak time in the desert.
Now, beds and doctors are often strained, said hospital spokeswoman Machele Headington. The hospital recently built a $58 million tower providing a 20 percent increase in beds, to 328, with the top half of the new six-story structure set aside for even more beds some day, she said.
Of the $5.5 million spent last year on charity care, an estimated $2 million went for treating illegal immigrants, Headington said. The federal government needs to fully reimburse medical facilities for such care, she said, noting that it now covers only a fraction of the cost.
“It’s those large numbers we get at one time that really tax the system, when you get 15 to 18 people in from one accident,” she said, referring to illegal immigrants injured when their van crashes in a chase.
“In a country where an increasing number of people don’t have coverage,” Headington said, “we’re facing a real challenge here on providing care to all of us.”
Because Yuma is largely a way station for illegal migration, public school enrollments aren’t affected, said Kerry Jones, chief financial officer for the 10,000-student Yuma Elementary School District.
But taxpayers remain suspicious, so the Yuma Union High School District employs a resource officer who visits students’ homes to ensure the families are legitimate residents, said Supt. Tim Foist.
“Here’s what the bottom line is for me: The community was openly expressing their concern that they did not want to spend their tax dollars educating illegals,” Foist said, adding that voters passed a $70 million bond measure last November.
And for all the proposals being offered by Bush this week, migrants continued to line up on the other side of the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. One afternoon this week, many were waiting in the town square for nightfall, when their illicit journeys begin.
“Despite what they do, the people are still going to keep coming because of the work over there,” said Pedro Martinez, 28, an electrician who was planning to head to Los Angeles. “Even if there are one, two, three, four, five fences on the border, people are still going to cross — they’ll just go underground.”