PoliticsImmigration48 Hours on the Border


This is what life is like in a border city

People who live in Douglas, Arizona, have a unique perspective as the country deals with an influx of migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.
Posted at 12:42 PM, Mar 12, 2024

Douglas, Arizona, is a small and quiet city on the U.S.-Mexico border with a population of about 16,000.

To the south, Douglas is surrounded by border fencing and barbed wire on both sides of the port of entry.

"That port of entry is very busy," said Bruce Whetten, a reporter for the Herald Review.

The port in Douglas is known for drug trafficking. In January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection arrested a 19-year-old man attempting to smuggle nearly 500,000 blue fentanyl pills into the U.S.

"Ever since I've been here, drugs have been a problem, and it's getting worse now with fentanyl, but at the same time, you know, it's a never-ending battle between good and evil on this, as to, you know, the law enforcement trying to stop it and the drug pushers are trying to get it across," said Whetten.

He's covered every story in Douglas for more than 30 years. He says although the city does have immigration issues, it hasn't seen an overwhelming surge like other border cities.

"I want to set the record straight on something here. They're not here to stay. This is a stopping point for them, and we know that. They're here at most 24-36 hours and then they're on their way," added Whetten. "We're not seeing them wander the streets. We're not having the violence they have in other locations."

City leaders believe migrants pass through Douglas quickly because it doesn't have the resources to support them.

When asked how Douglas is doing economically, Councilman Mitch Lindemann said, "We've always been stressed economically. We did have our big smelter close back in the '80s and so that hurt us economically."

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About 40 years later, downtown Douglas is surrounded by abandoned buildings and no bustling businesses. But the biggest factor in why few migrants are making their way to Douglas is the lack of transportation.

"We don't have the transportation hub that other bigger communities have. We don't have a bus line. We don't have a railroad line. We don't have any airports, you know, to speak of that are public," said Councilman Lindemann.

That's not to say that illegal immigration doesn't happen in Douglas. Scripps News Phoenix witnessed a small group of people climb over the border fencing and be quickly apprehended.

"I think that's probably always happened, but we do have law enforcement that handle those types of things," Lindemann said about the illegal crossings. 

In September, an SUV with undocumented immigrants inside tried to evade law enforcement in Douglas before crashing. Two people in the vehicle were killed.

Whetten was sent to cover the crash.

"It was a head-on collision where there was, what we call, a soft pursuit. The vehicle was carrying some illegals and law enforcement saw that he was heading into city limits — and so they decided to back off. The driver did not know that. So, he decided to continue on at a high rate of speed, plowed through an intersection, and took out another vehicle," he said.

While scenes of migrants flooding the city have not happened in Douglas, leaders worry that could change with no new federal funding coming and Homeland Security faced with a budget shortfall.

"It really weighs heavy on us because we have very limited resources as a small community. If the funding dries up, we don't know what will happen. It's all a big question," Lindemann said.

For now, it's just day-to-day life in Douglas, all while trying to rebuild the bad reputation given to this border community.

"Douglas is not getting its fair share and right now, you know, we're trying to get this community revamped. We're trying to rebuild its reputation. I guess it's been tarnished somewhat," said Whetten.

This story was originally published by Javier Soto at Scripps News Phoenix.