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First responders in border cities face funding issues compounded by the impact of immigration

Ongoing surges of migrants crossing the border have put strain on local police and fire departments that have continued to have funding issues.
Arizona Border
Posted at 7:13 AM, Jul 09, 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 every year. 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 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 Botello, who acknowledged it's a big commitment for such a small department.

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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 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.

"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."

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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," Ramirez said. "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.

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So far, 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."

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.

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