Blaze News investigates: Small border town battles port closure amid rising immigration

News & Politics

United States Customs and Border Protection announced on December 1, 2023, that the Lukeville Port of Entry in Arizona would be “temporarily” closed down “until further notice.”

Nearby local communities and small businesses were stunned by the abrupt news and were left with no indication of when the port’s operations would resume.

Less than 30 miles up the road from the Lukeville Port of Entry lies the town of Why, an unincorporated rural community with approximately 100 residents, a number that fluctuates depending on the time of year with snowbirds heading elsewhere during the hot summer months. Travelers on their way to Mexico from the Phoenix metropolitan area, Tucson, and California converge at Why, the final stop before reaching the Lukeville port. The border crossing offers the most direct route for those headed to Puerto Peñasco, also called Rocky Point.

Why has one Mexican food restaurant and a convenience store, the Why Not Travel Store, a favorite pitstop for many tourists.

Blaze News spoke with the store’s general manager, Bernadette Nez, about the port of entry closure, how it impacted her business, and the unknowns regarding its reopening.

“Everything was very slow,” Nez stated. “We didn’t get any travelers heading down to Mexico. We only had a few locals, and Why is very small.”

Nez explained that when the port of entry closed, her business saw only about 15 people per day. She has never seen the port completely shut down during her 40 years of residing in the area.

“We barely even had enough to make our light bill,” she told Blaze News. “It was like a ghost town.”

Nez said her business ultimately survived the lull thanks to the area’s residents, including Border Patrol agents living in the town, who stepped up by shopping at the convenience store more frequently during the closure. She noted that Why is a tight-knit community where everyone knows their neighbors.

Lukeville itself is not much of a town but serves as more of a stopping point for those heading across the border. It includes one gas station market, about a dozen or so trailer homes, and not much else. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department provides law enforcement services to the area.

On the other side of the border in Mexico, business owners also felt the sting of the shutdown.

David Grosse, an Arizona resident with rental properties in Rocky Point, told Blaze News that approximately 90% of his renters canceled their stays upon hearing the news that the Lukeville Port of Entry was closed. Arizona residents own the majority of the 6,000 condos and 3,500 homes in Puerto Peñasco, the Arizona Republic reported.

Most tourists headed to the vacation destination drive through the Lukeville border because it is “convenient, and people feel comfortable with it,” Grosse said.

“Every property in the area got impacted. And, for me, I was controlling around 50,” he explained. “Everyone drives down to Rocky Point because it’s the closest beach. And the renters going down for two or three nights basically all canceled and needed to be refunded or moved into some sort of unknown future.”

He noted that when the port of entry was shut down, no one had any indication of when it might reopen.

“The people going back and forth are all Americans,” Grosse stated, adding that the closure impacted the area’s restaurants and those with rental properties. Some of Grosse’s prospective renters are still hesitant to book their travel accommodations because they are not confident the port will remain open.

Port closure sparks safety concerns

The Lukeville border shutdown was necessary to “redirect personnel to assist the U.S. Border Patrol with taking migrants into custody,” the CBP argued.

“In response to increased levels of migrant encounters at the Southwest Border, fueled by smugglers peddling disinformation to prey on vulnerable individuals, CBP is surging all available resources to expeditiously and safely process migrants,” the agency wrote.

CBP’s Tucson sector, which includes the Lukeville Port of Entry, is one of the busiest areas for illegal migrant crossings. According to the agency’s reporting, in the first six months of fiscal year 2024, the sector experienced a shocking 342,002 migrant encounters. The next busiest sector, Del Rio in Texas, experienced 194,288. These numbers do not include known or unknown gotaways.

Pima County Sheriff Chris Naños has staunchly maintained that the issues at the border are CBP’s responsibility and should not fall on the shoulders of county or state law enforcement agencies.

“The border is a federal government issue. It’s their problem,” he told Blaze News. “If [Border Patrol] needs our assistance, we’ll assist them. But I do not want my deputies doing Border Patrol work. My deputies have a job to do, and it’s not working the border.”

A December NBC News report, which was published amid the Lukeville closure, stated that CBP was releasing illegal migrants into the interior of the country “as fast as possible to avoid overcrowding,” according to three Department of Homeland Security officials who spoke to the news outlet. The sources claimed that migrants were “released directly onto the streets” in the Tucson area.

Naños said that the migrant street releases are a “concern,” not so much for the department but for “the city of Tucson and the Board of Supervisors of Pima County.”

Referring to the supervisors, he remarked, “They saw — and I agree with this — the need to deal with, in a humanitarian crisis, people who were going to be released out onto the street. Basically, ‘We don’t know what to do with these people.’ They have crossed the border lawfully through the asylum process, and Border Patrol was going with what they’re challenged with and that was: Under the federal government guidelines, if they meet the asylum protocols, they’re to be released into the United States until their court date time.”

“Whether that court date’s tomorrow or 10 years from tomorrow, is another issue. But that’s not for the sheriff to deal with. Even Border Patrol will tell you, they have no control over those federal courts. They just schedule the court date that they’re given,” he added.

Blaze News asked Nez whether she had seen any migrants wandering the streets near Why or Ajo, the neighboring community.

“No, surprisingly we haven’t,” she replied. “We have just seen a lot of Border Patrol.”

Naños told Blaze News that Ajo’s crime levels are low, with the town averaging 1.4 to 1.8 emergency calls to the department per day. He stated that CBP alerted the county with “a week or two’s notice” that the Lukeville Port of Entry would be shut down — more warning time than locals were provided.

Arizona state Sen. David Gowan (R), whose district includes the Douglas Port of Entry, painted a different picture regarding immigration’s impact on rural Arizona communities. He told Blaze News that law enforcement officers have “reached their break point,” noting that the state’s ranchers and farmers are also battling increased criminal activity that threatens their lives and livelihoods.

“Our local sheriffs and their deputies are overwhelmed with crimes being carried out in our communities as a direct result of this open border crisis. Instead of focusing on responding to calls for service from our citizens, they’re juggling the influx of drug trafficking, human smuggling, high speed chases, rapes, murders, and other atrocities from criminals either coming across our border from Mexico, or U.S. citizens who are trying to make money by participating in these crimes,” Gowan commented.

One story that received media attention amid the Lukeville Port of Entry shutdown involved an American citizen who was forced to take an alternate route on his way back from Rocky Point. Craig Ricketts, an Arizona resident, was driving outside of Sasabe, Mexico, when he got caught in the crossfire of two rival smuggling gangs, KTVK reported. Ricketts’ vehicle was shot at least 16 times, and he sustained two gunshot wounds to his ankle and arm.

“The first thing I noticed was my left window was shattered. I saw a bullet hole through my front window, and my radio was blown out with a bullet,” Ricketts told the news outlet shortly after the attack.

He said he planned to travel through Nogales, but his GPS led him just outside Oquitoa, Sonora, roughly an hour and a half from Sasabe.

The Attorney General’s Office in Sonora told the media outlet that it was the second violent incident in the last month involving an American victim.

According to KTVK, two rival smuggling gangs began fighting near Sasabe in November. Due to the conflict, many of the town’s residents fled to the U.S. after being granted humanitarian waivers. The ongoing violent rivalry has also rocked communities south of Sasabe, including Altar, Caborca, and Benjamin Hill, the media outlet reported.

Lora Ries, the director of the Border Security and Immigration Center at the Heritage Foundation and former acting deputy chief of staff for the DHS, told Blaze News, “The Lukeville Port of Entry was shut down because border agents were overrun due to the Biden administration’s open border policies. If communities want a functioning border, they should direct their ire at the Biden administration and demand that it stop the illegal flow of people.”

“Those who benefit from legal travel and immigration and demand more of it need to be vocal about advocating against illegal immigration. Solve the whole problem, not just their special need by exception,” Ries added.

The port reopens, but issues remain

The Lukeville Port of Entry remained closed for a month before CBP announced it would resume field operations on January 4, 2024, just days after Ricketts was injured.

Nez told Blaze News that she is thankful the closure did not last longer and is happy to see her customers again.

“We’re just hoping that another shutdown of the border doesn’t happen, ever,” she remarked. “It really caused a lot of trouble within our personal lives and our work lives.”

When asked whether he is concerned the port could be shut down again, Grosse told Blaze News, “I don’t know exactly what any government is going to do. Somebody’s allocating these people — the migrants, or forces, or whatever it is — and they’re designating where they’re supposed to cross the border.”

Grosse, who has managed rental properties in Rocky Point since 2010, explained that, during his recent travels between Arizona and Mexico, he has observed many migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border who “look like foreign troops,” noting that nearly all are adult males around military age. He noted that he began noticing this right after the October 7 attack on Israel.

“I’ve been traveling back and forth for years,” he stated, noting that the experience has previously always been “incredibly normal.”

“The reaction to: I’m seeing what looks like an army of troops coming across — everyone says it’s not that; it’s something else,” he told Blaze News.

“And I’m supposed to ignore what I saw with my eyes. And I do have concern,” Grosse added.

Jeff Rainforth, a reporter and videographer, recently spent seven weeks in Lukeville filming his experiences at the southern border.

In October, Rainforth captured video of large groups of illegal migrants he stated were mainly from Middle Eastern and African countries. His observations aligned with what Grosse described to Blaze News.

“It was surreal,” Rainforth wrote, regarding his accounts in Lukeville. “Like out of an apocalyptic movie.”

In a January post on X, he wrote, “From my time on the border near Lukeville, Arizona. The port of entry closed because so many illegal aliens were there. Mostly male illegal aliens from the African countries of Senegal and Guinea which are majority Islamic. Tensions were very high because people tried to cut in line to get on transport vehicles first. I see that all the time. There were so many illegal aliens, many had to sleep here 3 days. There’s not enough Border Patrol and the Biden administration refused to call in the national guard to help.”

Anything else?

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) said last month that the state is “at a crucial juncture” regarding the number of migrants crossing the southern border.

“I hope that we don’t see street releases. We’re going to do everything we can to avoid that, but as you know, our budget picture isn’t great, and we’ve expended a good amount of the funding we have for these programs,” Hobbs stated.

The governor requested $752 million for CBP’s Shelter and Services Program to cover the costs of humanitarian aid expenses in an effort to keep migrants off the street.

Pima County, which includes Lukeville, has been using federal funds since 2019 to provide temporary housing and transportation out of state for those claiming asylum.

The county has the largest linear border with Mexico than any county in the country, Sheriff Naños explained. Along that border and under the county’s jurisdiction sit several small towns in addition to Lukeville, including Sasabe and Arivaca. Of all the townships and communities along Pima County’s border with Mexico, the sheriff’s department received only 126 calls in one year, according to Naños.

“And, of course, you have the Indian reservation, which takes up probably about I’m guessing, 70 to 75 miles of that border,” he continued. “I wouldn’t say it’s open, but the reservation — most people don’t realize this — the reservation is its own nation. … And their border actually exceeds south of the Mexico border. So, that reservation goes beyond the Mexican line that we know of. They have quite a bit of impact with the Mexican population and that governance.”

Naños explained that federal funding to provide services to migrants was set to run out on April 1, igniting great concern that waves of individuals would be released onto the streets. He said that using Pima County or the city of Tucson’s funds to address migrants’ humanitarian needs means less money in the budget for his department and other community necessities.

“Fortunately, last minute, the federal government stepped in and has now taken on some responsibility. I guess at least for now until December to continue funding those asylum seekers,” he told Blaze News.

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