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Local officials call Vice President's visit to Nogales a 'photo op'

With the border town of Nogales as a backdrop, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the Trump administration's complaints about the legal framework surrounding immigration, and told repeated the idea that there was an "unprecedented" number of apprehensions along the border. 

Pence came to Arizona for the the second time in two months, visiting the Nogales Border Patrol station, and a chunk of border fence along the western outskirts of Nogales. 

The visit comes as border officials operate under two shadows: the first, an increasing influx of Central American families, fleeing violence and poverty by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and immediately surrendering to Border Patrol agents; and the second, a sudden bout of firings and resignations at the top levels of the Department of Homeland Security. 

On Sunday, the administration announced that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was leaving the agency. On Tuesday, her deputy, Claire Grady was forced to resign so that President Trump's new pick to run the agency U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan could take Nielsen's spot. This was followed with the resignation of acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ron Vitiello, and the firing of the U.S. Secret Service's head. 

With McAleenan in the top spot at DHS this has left CBP—the agency that includes Border Patrol, and the Office of Field Operations which manages U.S. ports—without a Congressionally approved leader. 

During his short visit to the Nogales station, Pence told reporters that he would like to amend the Flores Settlement, a legal agreement made by the federal government following a 1997 class-action lawsuit, and said that the Nogales area was once the epicenter for illegal immigration, but allocating resources helped reduce it.

Pence called on Congress to end "legal loopholes" in the U.S. immigration system, echoing a similar statement made by Nielsen when she traveled to the Nogales-area in mid-2018. 

Pence said that Border Patrol apprehended a "record" 4,300 people on Tuesday, and called on Congress to reform immigration laws, reported the Nogales International. 

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The agency has repeatedly said that the apprehensions—what Border Patrol calls people taken into custody regardless of whether or not they are seeking asylum or attempted to evade agents—are unprecedented, but historically, the agency faced larger numbers in eight of the last 17 years. However, the demographic shift in who agents encounter has strained an agency built around holding and quickly deporting Mexican adults. 

In March, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 92,000 people across the U.S.-Mexico border, a 38 percent increase from February. Over the first half of the fiscal year of 2019, more than 360,000 people had been taken into custody by the agency. Of those, about 38 percent were single adults, while the rest were either unaccompanied children, traveling with parents or guardians, or families. 

This has led to Border Patrol agents to declare a "humanitarian crisis" as the agency has shifted man-hours and money to transport people, treat health-care issues, and then release them either to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or increasingly, to non-governmental organizations. 

Pence told the agent that the Trump administration is "absolutely determined to make sure you have the resources you need," reported the Arizona Republic. 

Roy Villareal, the chief of the Tucson Sector, and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey were also in attendance. Villareal told the vice president that the increasing numbers of Central American families seeking asylum in the United States has required pulling agents from enforcement duties, echoing statements made earlier in March during a press conference with reporters, and statements made by Border Patrol officials on Monday. 

Ten minutes after the reception, reporters were loaded into Border Patrol vehicles and driven out to the outskirts of Nogales where at least two dozen Border Patrol agents waited, the 18-foot-high bollard fence clearly visible behind them. 

Before Pence arrived, officials in the Nogales area, Democrats, and environmental groups criticized Pence's pit-stop in the Arizona side of the twin-cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. 

"Every top official comes here for the photo-op," said Manuel Ruiz, the chairman of Santa Cruz County Supervisors. "It's frustrating as an elected official not be able to address our concerns with someone that has the ear of the president. We're elected officials too." 

Ruiz said that if he could have met with Pence, he would have expressed his concerns about the slow-downs at all three of Nogales' ports of entry, exacerbated by the shift of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers away from the city's two major ports. He would have pressed for more Customs officers and Border Patrol agents, more technology along the border over a wall, and help with a shift in how tomatoes will be imported into the United States. 

Ruiz said that around $3 billion in produce moves through Nogales, Arizona each year, and more money comes from people crossing the border from Mexico. 

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A recent University of Arizona study from late 2018 estimated that fresh tomatoes alone, adds about $4.8 billion to the U.S. economy each year. 

"Cargo at rest is cargo at risk," said Ruiz. He also said the slowdowns come at a difficult time for Nogales, during Holy Week when the city of Nogales usually receives hundreds of additional visitors from Mexico. "When you look at the downtown area of Nogales it's dying," because people can't get across, and that hurts the area's tax revenue, Ruiz said. 

While Nogales Police Chief Roy Bermudez and Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels were in attendance, Santa Cruz County County Sheriff Tony Estrada said that he was not given the opportunity to speak with the vice president during his visit, but would have told Pence that the Nogales area "doesn't have a crisis." 

"I wasn't invited, but if could speak to him, I would ask him to take down the terrible, dangerous, and ugly razor wire that's been put up along the border here. It just sends a terrible message, and we have a good relationship with Mexico, and it hurts our friendship, and for people further from the border, who really want to know what's happening down here," Estrada said. 

Estrada commended the vice president for coming to Nogales, but said that Pence was following the script of other politicians who come to the Nogales area, but don't speak with local officials. 

"We don't have a crisis here, we have a challenge. Not with illegal immigration, and people coming over the fence, but rather we have a problem with drugs. Illegal immigration pales in comparison to this issue, and we have not been given the attention and resources the issue needs," Estrada said. 

"If I could bend his ear, that's what I would tell him," Estrada said. 

Dannels, who represents the National Sherrif's Assocation and the Advisory Council for Homeland Security, said in a statement, ""I appreciate the invitation and opportunity to support our community as Sheriff, and to provide local input to insure our voice is heard as policy and best practices are developed."

The Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental organization that has sued the Trump administration over the construction of walls along the U.S.-Mexico border said that Pence should be "ashamed" to visit Nogales. 

"Pence should be ashamed to show his face in Nogales or any other borderland community," said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Unless Pence is here to take down the vile razor wire his administration strung through this safe community, he should pack up and go home. It’s disgusting that Pence and Trump keep demonizing these border cities and then using them as props. It needs to stop." 

"Although my office was not involved in the events concerning the arrival of the vice president to Nogales, I welcome him to observe first-hand the physical, emotional and humanitarian toll his and Trump’s policies have wrought upon border communities and asylum seekers," said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva. "As he poses with Border Patrol agents in front of the Nogales Border Wall covered in grotesque concertina wire, I hope he thinks of the other parts of the border that he has no interest in seeing." 

Grijalva said he hopes that the vice president meets with asylum seekers, Native American communities, environmental advocates and ranchers, and business owners affected by the administration's choices. 

"Hopefully he will walk away with a clearer picture of the beauty of border communities instead of the rampant despair promulgated by his boss," Grijalva said. "However, based on the record of the administration he represents, I doubt he will take any of these suggestions to heart and instead parrot the same talking points of hardline xenophobic rhetoric."

The Democratic National Committee was equally critical. In a statement, DNC spokesman John Santos said that Pence's trip to Arizona was a "great opportunity for him to address the issues that Nogales residents have been facing, like the increasing wait times at ports of entry that severely affect cross-border trade and strain the lives of American citizens, or the demands of local officials to remove the dangerous and useless razor wire installed within the city limits of downtown Nogales, along the border fence.

"There are many ways for Pence to make his trip useful, but being a cudgel for Trump’s divisive rhetoric and reckless policies is definitely not one of them," Santos said. 

"As Vice President Pence continues to listen to the concerns of our border agents, Democrats refuse to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis facing our nation. Arizonans will take note that the Trump Administration is fighting against the flow of crime and drugs coming across the southern border, and taking action to secure our borders to keep our communities safe,” said Christiana Purves, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. 

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Arizona Republic photo/Nick Oza, Pool.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and members of the Border Patrol in Nogales, Arizona on Thursday.