GILA BEND, Arizona • Tim Micklin sells thick woolen blankets and large specialty flags out of the back of a white van in Gila Bend.
He’s parked on a dirt road next to the only Chevron gas station in town, and his wares are surprisingly popular in the hot desert climate.
His most frequent requests are for a Baby Yoda blanket and an “F Biden” flag.
Micklin, a 64-year-old veteran, was born and raised in Arizona. His father immigrated to the United States right before the Bolshevik Revolution. He has a Latina wife, a son who teaches Spanish, and a brother-in-law who comes across the border every year for seasonal work.
Micklin, who pays thousands of dollars to rent the patch of space for his burgeoning business, cracks jokes and teases his customers. He becomes serious when talk turns to Gila Bend’s growing immigration problem.
“Biden failed to call this a crisis, but this is a crisis,” he said. “I’m telling you, it is a crisis.”
Like others the Washington Examiner spoke to, Micklin has a complex view of the immigration crisis in border towns such as Gila Bend. He is at times sympathetic, frustrated, and angry about it. He believes the decisions made in Washington, D.C., are placing a huge burden and siphoning resources in towns that have none to spare.
“Where do they go? We don’t have the resources to take care of them. Who is going to take care of them?” he said.
The U.S. is facing the biggest surge of migrants at its southwestern border in 20 years. Unlike larger border cities in Texas and California, the increase in Arizona has put tremendous pressure on small towns ill-equipped to handle the rush of people.
Border agents have been using their own discretion to release migrants — some have even been released without receiving a court date. The use of such discretion by Border Patrol is unprecedented and, some say, is a sign of just how overwhelmed parts of the border have become. In the past, migrants released have largely been dropped off at shelters or bus stations. But now, they are being taken to places that don’t have the resources to help, such as Gila Bend and Yuma.
The latest desert drop-offs in Gila Bend happened without much, if any, notice and have left the community scrambling.
Officials in Gila Bend were told that the releases would increase in pace, as many as two per week, indefinitely. That kind of foot traffic is likely to inundate the community of fewer than 2,000 residents.
“To drop people in basically the middle of nowhere, it’s 30 miles to the next type of town, and that’s 30 miles of open desert,” Mayor Chris Riggs said. “So, especially come July and August, we’re going to be finding bodies.”
“They are going to die out here,” he said. “It’s too hot.”
Micklin said he got so dehydrated working in the heat last summer that he ended up in the hospital.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
The summers in Gila Bend are sweltering, and temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The landscape is unforgiving.
There are no hospitals or shelters. There are no designated spots where released families can go; neither is there enough money to build said spots. The ratio of open businesses to boarded-up ones is alarming.
The entire town’s operations are managed by just five people. The mayor takes off an entire week at a time because he has to go to his “regular job.”
“We barely have enough people to deal with the day-to-day needs of the town,” Riggs said.
The last 16-person group that was dropped off in town included five families from Venezuela and one from Chile. They had small children with them, including one who thought she was in Delaware and about to be reunited with her mother.
They looked scared, hungry, and confused, one resident told the Washington Examiner.
“They had no idea why they were being dumped,” Riggs said. “Literally, they’d be sleeping at the park, and I’m not going to do that to little children.”
The mayor made a desperate plea to the community and asked for volunteers with vans to help drive the group to a shelter in Phoenix, arranged by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat.
Riggs and his wife helped drive the group.
He came back and declared a state of emergency.
The move got him national media coverage and brought the plight of overlooked border towns to light. But even though the stunt worked, there’s no guarantee the town will be a priority.
While the majority of residents were a little more diplomatic, Micklin didn’t pull any punches and put the blame squarely on the Biden administration’s shoulders.
“Mr. Biden, the temporary president of the United States for three more years, has lied to us,” he said. “So has Kamala Harris. When I first saw the news that they dropped illegals off here, the first thing I thought was, ‘Here we go again.’ We are a country of laws. We also are a country of immigrants, so there’s a right way to come across, and there’s an illegal way.”
Another resident named Marie, who would only give her first name out of fear of retaliation, said while she can sympathize with asylum-seekers looking for a better life, she is sick of seeing her town pay the price.
“This isn’t a dumping ground,” she said.
Phoenix resident Zachery Reeves couldn’t hold back his frustration.
“Our economy is hard as it is right now, and then for us to support everybody else ...” he said. “America is a very welcoming country, but right now, we don’t have the resources.”
He believes the administration is making a bad problem so much worse.
“They will literally gather them until it’s too much for their resources to handle,” he said. “They are already pushing the brink of the resources that they don’t have enough to begin with. Once they get a big bunch, instead of taking them back to the border, they’ll just release them out to the public, and off you go.”
The situation doesn’t get better in Yuma, about 110 miles west of Gila Bend.
During the last migrant surge in 2019, the resources that were available mostly dried up, Mayor Douglas Nicholls told the Washington Examiner. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, community food banks, local businesses, nonprofit groups, and churches had all pitched in.
This time is different.
Several groups have been sidelined or have significantly scaled back the aid they can provide due to COVID-19 concerns.
On top of that, the Arizona Department of Health Services recently announced that it had detected the so-called South African variant in the state, a discovery Nicholls said will “add complications to the mix.”
“Currently, we have some nonprofits helping test people for COVID and then getting them on a bus to go to a regional shelter, often in Tucson or Phoenix,” he said.
Nicholls said there has been at least one migrant released every single day since Feb. 15. The most in one day has been 136. While the number is lower than the 2019 surge, there were far more resources available back then.
The city’s immediate need is transportation.
Nicholls, who has been mayor since 2014, warns that even though Arizona’s small cities and towns are bearing the current brunt of the crisis, the broader issue of immigration affects everyone.
“Every part of the country experiences immigration in a different way,” he said. “It doesn’t just affect the border communities. That’s only where it starts.”
Barnini Chakraborty is senior investigations reporter for the Washington Examiner.