The last time a president visited the border in Yuma, Arizona, was 2007, when then-President George W. Bush came to oversee the massive fence-building campaign he’d begun a year earlier, hoping to get a handle on the sea of illegal immigrants flowing north.
Ten years later, as President Trump visits Yuma on Tuesday, the region is considered one of the border’s clearest success stories.
A surge in fencing and Border Patrol agents and a get-tough approach to prosecuting illegal immigrants have produced results that once seemed unimaginable.
The number of illegal immigrants arrested — a rough yardstick for the overall flow — has dropped by a staggering 90 percent in the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector. They no longer see “banzai runs” of hundreds of migrants breaking across the border, property crimes are down, the number of migrants found dead while attempting the crossing is down — and so are assaults on Border Patrol agents, which have fallen from 37 in 2005 down to just seven last year.
“It was like somebody flipped a switch to us. It went from chaos to a controlled border,” Yuma County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Eben Bratcher told The Washington Times during a visit to the region earlier this year.
Now Mr. Trump is calling for another round of spending, looking to duplicate Yuma’s success in other communities that are suffering a new spate of illegal immigration. Yet he’s meeting resistance from many of the same lawmakers who were willing to assist Mr. Bush.
Where the Bush administration won bipartisan backing for its 700 miles of fence-building, Mr. Trump is meeting universal resistance from Democrats, and reluctance even from some Republicans. The same goes for boosting the number of Border Patrol agents, which both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama did — though Mr. Trump’s plans are again meeting obstructions.
That’s galling to a White House that already feels it’s getting rougher treatment from Congress than any other president would.
“Those were bipartisan — supported by Hillary Clinton, supported by Barack Obama, supported by Joe Biden,” a White House official said. “Securing the homeland, building a physical barrier should be a bipartisan issue to save American lives — and not just American lives, lives of would-be migrants.”
White House officials said the administration will use Mr. Trump’s visit to call on Congress to adopt a Yuma-style approach elsewhere along the border, asking for more agents and more wall-building, as well as to pass bills cracking down on sanctuary cities and on repeat illegal immigrants. Both of those bills cleared the House earlier this year but have yet to see any action in the Senate.
Democrats didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article, but border security has been politicized for years, with Republicans generally backing a get-tough approach, while Democrats have tilted toward leniency for many illegal immigrants.
Most of those along the border itself, though, are looking for answers that have a track record of success.
In Yuma, a city of nearly 100,000 people, that’s meant a coordinated approach.
A triple layer of fence has been built near the official port of entry, with one massive bollard-style barrier up along the border, another set back with a high-speed dirt road running in the middle, and a third chain-link fence just behind them.
More agents have also been sent to patrol the area. And both Homeland Security and the Justice Department began to push for stiffer penalties for those caught crossing the border, including charging some of them with crimes, rather than the previous practice of returning them to Mexico or releasing them into the U.S. and hoping they returned for deportation.
That’s known as the Criminal Consequence Initiative, and as many as one-third of all illegal immigrants caught in the Yuma Sector face criminal prosecutions, with the chance of doing jail time, for illegal entry.
Before those policies were put into place, illegal immigration along the 126 miles of the Yuma Sector was rampant, peaking in 2006 with 138,438 migrants nabbed by the Border Patrol, or 12 percent of the total in the Southwest.
Just a year later, the number dropped to 37,992, and by 2008, when the fencing in Yuma had been finished, the number was just 8,363, or just 1 percent of the total.
In 2016 the number was more than 14,000, or about 3 percent of the southwestern border total.
The figure is projected to drop again this year thanks to a major dip since Mr. Trump took office. In April just 244 illegal immigrants were caught across the entire Yuma Sector. The number for July has risen to 893 but was still well below the 2,000-per-month number Mr. Obama turned over to Mr. Trump.
“I would have to give credit to the layered approach,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “Different things work with different types of crossers, and we have to try to stop them all.”
Still, she cautioned against complacency, saying the cartels are always looking for new methods — and saying it’s possible they’ve shifted much of the traffic elsewhere along the border.
“For the community of Yuma and the surrounding area, that’s a big success. What we don’t know is how much of that traffic was simply moved eastward into Texas and other parts of Arizona,” she said.
And even as the flow of illegal immigrants has fallen, drug smuggling remains an issue in Yuma.
Marijuana seizures spiked from 2013 to 2015, then dropped back to a more usual level in 2016, but cocaine seizures were way up.
The sheriff’s department said they’ve seen ultralights and drones fly drug loads over the border, seen a crane used to drop loads and have even picked up drug packages that they suspect were fired over using a T-shirt cannon.
Border Patrol agents said smugglers built sandbag bridges just below the surface of the Colorado River, and made driving runs across the river.
Those on the ground said a fence helps in funneling the activity, but manpower and technology — and prosecutions for those caught breaking the law — will be what makes a real difference.
“We could put up a fence in an area and it’ll stop it, but over time they’ll do something different. You have to evolve with that. What it really relies on is the agents seeing what’s changing,” Agent Michael Espinoza told The Times earlier this year. “There’s always people trying to exploit what we do. That’s why we try to evolve and use our imagination.”
While Mr. Trump’s trip to Yuma puts immigration in special focus, it was already going to be a subtext even without a visit to the border.
The president will fly from Yuma to Phoenix, where he has a rally scheduled — and where some Democrats fear he’ll issue a pardon for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Mr. Trump hinted at the possibility recently when he told Fox News he was “seriously considering” issuing the pardon for Arpaio’s criminal contempt of court conviction earlier this year.
Arpaio supporters have cheered the suggestion, saying the president should not only grant a pardon but give the former sheriff a border security role in the Homeland Security Department.
Immigrant rights groups, however, urged Mr. Trump to back off, saying to pardon Arpaio would be an insult to Hispanics the former sheriff illegally targeted for traffic stops in an effort to net more illegal immigrants to turn over to federal agents.
Democrats said an Arpaio pardon would also pave the way for Mr. Trump to eventually pardon his family and others who Democrats predicted could face prosecution for involvement with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
“It would be a disgrace to the office of the presidency, which, I guess at this point, we should be used to,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat.
Jess O’Connell, CEO of the Democratic National Committee, also panned the idea Monday, saying a “pardon for Joe Arpaio is a pardon for white supremacy.”
Mr. Gallego also said he is worried the rally will attract attention-seeking white nationalist “losers” that have nothing better to do with their lives other than to pick on innocent people.
Arizonans aren’t eager about a pardon, according to OH Predictive Insights, a Phoenix-based polling company, which found 50 percent of state residents opposed a pardon and just 21 percent supported it.