Arizona border city of Douglas grappling with new reality as hub of immigration crisis

Mar 14, 2024, 4:35 AM | Updated: 11:25 am

Tune to 92.3 FM from noon to 2 p.m. on Thursday for a roundtable discussion on the border.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series called “48 Hours on the Border” in conjunction with ABC15 Arizona. Read part one here and part two here.

DOUGLAS, Ariz. — Driving down G Avenue in Douglas, it’s hard to imagine the area has experienced some of the highest levels of migrant crossings in the nation.

It’s a quiet border city where residents said not much happens and elderly couples walk hand-in-hand down a historic downtown strip where buildings from Arizona’s past stand tall and proud.

In a main city park, children play and shop at food trucks. Restaurants are packed with local families and friends, many fixed on talks of faith and religion. The historic Gadsden Hotel downtown is empty and old but contains lifetimes of history.

“[People] thought once they hit Douglas, they would see these narcos and all these people running around with guns … you don’t see that,” Douglas resident and local military historian Felipe Bernal said.

Border crossing numbers, however, tell a different story of two communities — including one on the Mexican side of the border — that are in the center of an immigration crisis that has evolved over time.

In January, 50,565 migrants were encountered in the Tucson sector, which encompasses Douglas. That’s more than double the number of migrants encountered in the San Diego sector at the same time, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Douglas, Agua Prieta border towns enjoyed shared history

Directly across the border from Douglas sits the Mexican city of Agua Prieta.

The reality is a far cry from past decades when Mexican workers would cross into Douglas for the day and return home to Agua Prieta when the day ended.

Those are the days Bernal remembers from his childhood. He was born in the city in 1944.

“This is where I was born and raised, and this is where I am going to die,” he said.

He recalls a peaceful coexistence between the two cities.

“My mom, she would either give them a sandwich, or a burrito, or something. And that was it. There were no problems,” Bernal said.

While the two cities were a nation apart, residents of Douglas and Agua Prieta saw themselves as part of a whole community.

“When I was growing up, the fence there, it was just three or four strands of barbed wire. That’s all it was,” Hector Leon Jr. said.

Leon was born the other side of the barbed wire fence in Agua Prieta. He came to the United States legally when he was 4 years old and spent time in Tucson before settling down in Douglas.

He later went on to play baseball at several levels before retiring in the border town.

“They can say they hit a home run from one country to the next, and it’s true,” Leon joked when remembering Douglas from decades past.

For both Leon and Bernal, their communities were joined by games of baseball and football in their youth.

“Right across the street, almost on the Mexico side, was a baseball stadium,” Leon said. “Which in itself was a unique thing.”

Children from both sides of the border, which at the time Bernal says was stationed by a single Border Patrol officer, joined together to play games there.

“Most of the kids from my barrio were pretty good kids. We all hung around together, played baseball, played football,” Bernal said. “On weekends, we would go to a field here, we called it ‘Pasté,’ it was a baseball field that was there for years and years.”

This was the root of a sports-based tradition in both Douglas and Agua Prieta.

In 1913, the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox played in Douglas during the Round the World Tour at the Copper King Stadium, located just miles from the southern border.

Today, the tradition continues with events like the Mexican Baseball Fiesta, which was also hosted at the Copper King Stadium in October 2023 and honors baseball teams in communities on both sides of the border.

A new reality for Douglas, Agua Prieta

Bernal and Leon emphasized multiple times there were never problems between Douglas and Agua Prieta and remembered two thriving communities in those days.

Now, the two cities are not separated by just strands of barbed wire, but rather a towering metal wall, a ditch, the Douglas Port of Entry – and then barbed wire atop all that.

Not only has the dynamic at the border shifted, but Douglas’ economic prosperity also took a downturn in 1987 when the town’s smelter closed.

He said the situation at the border today makes him sad but also believes the wall itself is necessary due to the sheer number of people who want to come here.

“The sadness for me as far as the fencing … it looks like a prison,” Bernal said.

But despite the high numbers of crossings, the problem has stayed on the fringes for Douglas residents.

“I feel sorry for them because they’re looking for a better life,” Bernal said. “But there’s also one thing that I feel, there’s a lot of people here in the United States, here in town, here close to the border, that need assistance, that need help.”

Leon wonders what will happen when funding runs out for programs that provide services and transportation to migrants.

Both local and statewide faith-based and nonprofit organizations coordinate the use of federal dollars to house and provide services to migrants in Douglas. They also transport migrants to other places for assistance

“Will they let them loose? What are they going to do? Will law enforcement pick them up? If they do, what are they going to do? Are they going to deport them? You know, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Leon said.

Some lawmakers have considered closing the entire border, which Bernal views as a threat. Douglas and other border towns rely on business from Mexico.

“I’d like to get a hold of some of those people and wring their necks,” Bernal said when asked what he thinks of the people in Washington, D.C. who determine border policy.

Hopes for the future of Douglas and Agua Prieta

What Bernal and Leon do want is for those lawmakers and everyday people to look at Douglas seriously and take a break from the border conversation.

They fear Arizonans and other potential visitors are afraid to visit Douglas and learn about the city’s history because of fears associated with the high numbers of migrants crossing the border.

“People have said Douglas is cocaine alley, among other things, that’s a bunch of – I’m not gonna say the word – that’s not true,” Bernal said.

The result of this is a town where people feel overlooked by the federal government.

“Where’s our government? Where are they finding the jobs, what are they finding for our people?” Bernal said.

They described an economic landscape where people struggle to pay for necessities and businesses often close.

To remedy that, they ask that the people who design border policy and orchestrate what happens to communities like Douglas step foot in the places they are affecting.

That extends to Arizonans as well. Leon wants people to come visit and learn the history of a city that has been the state’s doorstep to our southern neighbors since before it formally joined the union.

“I wish and I hope that the rest of Arizona realizes, just like the rest of our great state, Douglas has something to offer that’s good,” Leon said.

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Arizona border city of Douglas grappling with new reality as hub of immigration crisis