Politics

Don’t Think Walls Work? Ask Yuma County’s Sheriff

Leon Wilmot says border fencing constructed a decade ago helped cut crime dramatically in his corner of Arizona

A common argument against President Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the southwest border of the United States with Mexico is that it simply will not work.

But don’t tell that to Leon Wilmot, the sheriff of Arizona’s Yuma County.

Wilmot recalled the lawlessness that ruled the border in the early years of the 21st century, when the desert boundary between the U.S. and Mexico was virtually wide open. The Yuma sector of the U.S. Border Patrol — which runs 126 miles and includes parts of California — had just 12 miles of fence and minimal barriers marking the line.

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It was hardly a deterrence, Wilmot said.

“It was pretty bad,” he told LifeZette. “We were having homicides, rapes, stolen vehicles.”

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[lz_ndn video=33698911]

Wilmot said illegal immigrants routinely harassed local farmers, stole tractors, and used stolen vehicles to smuggle people across the border. Records from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) show that in fiscal year 2005, Border Patrol agents arrested 138,438 illegal immigrants in the Yuma sector alone.

Then, in 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act. Workers replaced the existing barriers with 126 miles of primary and secondary fencing, in additional to vehicle fencing. Wilmot said his entire county now is separated from Mexico by a strong physical barrier.

Border apprehensions fell to 118,537 in fiscal year 2006 and tumbled to 37,994 the following year. The DHS declared that it had achieved “operational control” of the entire Yuma sector.

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By fiscal year 2016, apprehensions stood at just 14,170, indicating that few illegal immigrants even try to make the crossing. According to DHS, illegal vehicle crossings declined from 2,700 in fiscal year 2005 to six a few years later.

[lz_table title=”Before and After a Border Fence” source=”Department of Homeland Security”]Border apprehensions in Yuma sector
|Fiscal Year,Apprehensions
2003,56.6K
2004,98.1K
2005,138.4K
2006*,118.5K
2007,38K
2008,8.4K
2009,7K
2010,7.1K
|
*Border fencing constructed
[/lz_table]

Wilmot said the difference on the ground is palpable.

“We don’t have the deaths in the desert [of migrants trying to cross the border],” he said. “We’re not having the stolen vehicles.”

Then-President George W. Bush visited Yuma to tout the success of the fencing, and President Donald Trump has toured the area as well.

Elaine Duke, then the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, contrasted a region “besieged by chaos” with the current tranquility.

“It is hard for anyone familiar with Yuma sector today to imagine this scene,” she wrote last year in a USA Today op-ed. “That’s because nearly a decade ago, a group of bipartisan lawmakers came together to protect the homeland, save innocent lives, and build a physical barrier across the border.”

Yet Trump’s critics persist in arguing that building a wall is a waste of money that would be ineffectual. They frequently argue that a 14-foot wall would beget 15-foot ladders.

Border security advocates argue that the experience of border barriers undercut that narrative.

“If we can’t notice people walking through the desert with a 15-foot ladder, we’ve got problems,” quipped Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA.

 

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Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) said border fencing undoubtedly worked in Yuma.

“You see that in other places, too, south of San Diego, which was a wasteland … a stomping ground of people crossing,” she said.

Double- and triple-layered fencing transformed the area, Vaughan said.

“They’ve built a high school within sight of the border because it’s safe now … You wouldn’t know [the border was there] unless you turned around and saw it,” she said.

“We need to build the wall — fund it, start it, complete it — and that will actually help slow down the flow of everything from drug trafficking to just illegal aliens crossing the border.”

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said Thursday on “The Laura Ingraham Show” that the evidence is overwhelming.

“We need to build the wall — fund it, start it, complete it — and that will actually help slow down the flow of everything from drug trafficking to just illegal aliens crossing the border,” he said.

Experts agree that manmade barriers are not needed along some parts of the border. Much of Texas, for instance, has “God’s wall” — an unforgiving, mountainous region that makes passage extremely difficult. Such is the case in Jeff Davis County, a piece of which touches the border.

The sheriff, William Kitts, said the mountains make an effective barrier. Still, he told LifeZette, being on the border exposes the county to the effects of illegal immigration. He said border crossers who enter through neighboring Presidio County sometimes wind up in Jeff Davis County.

“There’s always people who commingle with them who don’t have the best intentions,” he said.

Experts say that underscores a basic truth about barriers — they only are one piece of the puzzle.

Wilmot, the Yuma sheriff, said true border security takes close cooperation among federal, state and local agencies.

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“You just can’t do it with a fence,” he said.

Wilmot said his agency participates in Operation Stonegarden, which provides grants to fund joint efforts to secure the border.

“We’re able to fill those gaps that our federal partners might have,” he said.

Wilmot said the law enforcement agencies also work together to prosecute illegal immigrants who commit crimes, bringing charges in both state and federal courts.

As the Trump administration pushes forward in its efforts to build a wall, Wilmot suggests close consultation with local officials.

“Washington needs to be engaged with all the local geographies, because they don’t know the area down here,” he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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