IN-DEPTH: Behind the Wall—A Closer Look at the ‘Yuma Gap’

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YUMA, Ariz.—Every night at the “Yuma gap,” where the California, Arizona, and United States-Mexico borders meet along the Colorado River, dozens or hundreds of migrants huddle in the thick brush waiting for their chance to come to America for a better life—a promise Mexican drug cartels have sold them for $500 to $5,000 a head.

But that dream is still more than 100 yards away down a steep embankment across the river to where the 30-foot tall iron border wall ends at the Cocopah Indian Reservation.

Behind them, the cartels patrol a road along the riverbank. They drop off two or three carloads of migrants at a time near a narrow part of the river about a half-mile trek to an 8-foot-wide gap between the wall and barricades designed to block vehicles—not people.

Empty shotgun shells from the cartels are scattered along the riverbank near a path to the opening where thousands of migrant footprints are imbedded in the dry sand.

The cartels house migrants near the Morelos Dam at Hotel Del Valle, just blocks from the border in Los Algodones in Mexico’s Baja California province, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

On the American side, U.S. Border Patrol agents wait with unmarked white buses to “apprehend” the migrants who cross the river under the cover of darkness behind the brightly lit American side of the border wall and Border Patrol vehicle headlights.

As one bus leaves, another one arrives, from dusk to dawn.

After midnight on May 19, more than 150 migrants surrendered peacefully to Border Patrol agents at the site—just one of several known illegal border crossings in the area.

Five buses—one empty—transported the asylum seekers, to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility a few miles away in San Luis to be processed.

Further up Yuma Levee Road along Salicity Canal, large stockpiles of materials to complete the border wall sit untouched.

Behind the Wall

Behind the wall that night, a Mexican man, who said his name is David, waited in the shadows on the Mexican side while a Border Patrol agent briefed the new arrivals.

As they boarded the bus, he scavenged items they dropped and discarded before crossing the border.

Displaying paper currency from Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia, David told The Epoch Times he makes about $500 a week, collecting foreign money, clothing, and cell phones that people leave behind.

Most of the migrants, he said, deliberately throw away their I.D. in Mexico so they are received as “undocumented” migrants when they enter the U.S.

Scattered among phone cards, pharmaceuticals, toothbrushes, and shoes strewn across the sand and rocks along the wall are discarded documents: passports, asylum cards issued in foreign countries, and flight records.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo “David” from Mexico displays the money he’s collected left behind by migrants crossing into Yuma, AZ., on May 18, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

David said he picks up garbage near the wall to stay in good graces with the Border Patrol agents and always knows when migrants are moving through the brush.

“The birds announce when someone is coming,” he said.

In the last year, since he has been scavenging at the border wall, David said he has witnessed tragedy and the kindness of Border Patrol agents who’ve tried to save the lives of migrants, including a 98-year-old Cuban man who suffered a heart attack after crossing the river with his daughter on a cold night last December.

The agent tried to revive the man, but it was too late. He was already gone, David said.

On another occasion, agents sent in a helicopter to rescue a woman who had experienced a severe epileptic seizure, he said.

David said that one day he hopes to cross legally into the U.S. with a work permit, but for now he’s making a living in Mexico.

A Bigger Picture

Michael Yon, a former Green Beret turned writer-photographer, has spent several years exploring the border crisis. After serving in the U.S. Special Forces in the early 1980s, he was embedded with American and British troops in Iraq and has written six books since he left the military in the mid-’90s.

Yon was at the illegal crossing in Yuma on May 19 from dusk till dawn after stints in New Mexico and El Paso.

“I’ve been up and down the border quite a lot,” he said. “I just got in from Panama—the Darién Gap.”

The Darién Gap is a Central American region between Panama’s Darién Province and the northern part of Colombia that links the North and South American continents. It is a 66-mile “gap” in the Pan-American Highway between Yaviza, Panama, and Turbo, Colombia where a road has never been built.

Yon said he’s been spending more and more time in the Darién Gap area because it’s a hub where many migrants start their journey northward. In that area, as in Mexico, migrants run the risk of being raped, robbed and murdered, or sold into the sex trade on their way to the U.S., he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo A cross is displayed near the U.S. border in Yuma, Arizona, on May 17, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

In Colombia, Yon said, the United Nations hands out International Organization for Migration (IOM) supplies—which he described as “pre-rape kits”—to women and girls crossing the Darién Gap .

The kits include female condoms and abortion pills, he said, as he displayed the items in a video call to The Epoch Times on May 22.

“They get raped a lot, and the men are murdered, or they break their legs with baseball bats, if they … try to get through without paying,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

“Some of the aliens who come through here have been through Darién,” he said.

Some others fly to El Salvador, Managua, Nicaragua, and Mexico City to make the trek to the U.S., and still others, especially Chinese migrants, land in Cancún, Yon said.

“The Chinese have a lot more money than the rest of the migrants here. Even the Chinese that come to the Darién Gap will go through an easier route. They’re more sophisticated in all of their approaches,” he said. “The Chinese have it all worked out. They have maps and Tik Tok videos and everything showing you how to get from here to there and all that.”

In contrast, the poorer migrants, such as many Haitians, usually take a more “helter-skelter” approach, Yon said.

In Yuma, flight information found along the Mexican side of the border wall indicated that many of migrants flew from Lima, Peru to Panama City to Mexico City before reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Here we’ve seen … quite a few from Peru, Colombia, scatterings from Brazil, and a lot of Venezuelans,” Yon said.

Some migrants told him they came from West African countries, including Ghana and Senegal, and the previous night, some said they came from Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, he said.

The next night at Yuma, cartels shone high-powered green lasers at Yon and Anthony Rubin, the founder of who is traveling with him along the border.

Manny Bayon, a National Border Patrol Council union leader in San Diego, told The Epoch Times in a text message that cartels use the lasers to interfere with infra-red detectors and night vision capabilities. The lasers can also be used to guide illegal border crossers and temporarily blind Border Patrol agents.

“You also never know if that laser is attached to a rifle,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Migrants prepare to be transported by bus to processing facilities in Yuma, Arizona, on May 18, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times

Yuma to California

All illegal migrants apprehended in Yuma are transferred to California, Bayon said.

After more than two years of lax border policies under the Biden administration, tens of thousands of migrants have been bused from overcrowded facilities in Yuma to Border Patrol stations in California, such as Otay Mesa and San Ysidro in San Diego County and Blythe, Indio, and Murrieta in Riverside County. From there, migrants who claim asylum are released to non-government agencies, or NGOs, which help them arrange travel to destinations across the U.S.

On May 20, near Jacumba in southeastern San Diego County, an unmarked white tour bus with dark-tinted windows pulled into a gas station. The bus was empty and headed back to San Luis after dropping off illegal migrants at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, according to the border patrol agents.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco told The Epoch Times that Riverside has received more than 75,000 illegal immigrants in the last two years.

“We are the only non-border county in the country to get border patrol drop-offs,” Bianco said.

Illegal immigration has become an industry for NGOs, he said.

From March 2021 to June 2023, it is projected the county will have paid $10.4 million to NGOs, and those funds will be matched by federal and state funding. The state also pays $1.3 million per month for hotel rooms to house illegal migrants, Bianco said.

Meanwhile, proposed legislation introduced by California State Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), Senate Bill 227, would pay unemployment benefits of $300 a week for up to 20 weeks to all unemployed workers regardless of their immigration status.

Health and Human Services already give illegal migrants with refugee status $3,500 to start their new life in America, and they automatically qualify for government assistance, Bayon said.

“That’s going to overwhelm the system,” he said. “We can’t even take care of our homeless people here who are citizens, some of them, and we’re just allowing these people to come in and give them $3,500 and qualify for welfare, public assistance, housing, and medical?”

NGOs, many of them Catholic charities, help migrants settle in the U.S. while they await their immigration hearings, but according to authorities, only one in 10 migrants show up for their final hearings, which are backlogged for years in some parts of the country.

The Regional Center for Border Health and its subsidiary the San Luis Walk-In Clinic, Inc., run by president and CEO Amanda Aguirre, a former Democratic Arizona state senator, is one of the NGOs that helps asylum seekers in the Yuma area.

“The main one is Border Health,” said Rafael Rivera, president of the National Border Patrol Council, Local 2595 in Yuma. “They have a clinic. They do assessments … and then they help out with housing them and send them to different locations and transport them to the airports.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo The border wall outside of Yuma, Arizona, on May 18, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Border Patrol

Rivera confirmed that busloads of illegal aliens are sent from the Yuma station to Border Patrol stations in San Diego and Riverside County.

He agrees the border crisis has become an illegal immigration industrial complex.

“We’re not securing the border. We just became clerks. We’re either asylum officers or immigration processors. That’s all we do,” he said.

Currently, the border patrol is expediting asylum claims for migrants from certain countries, Rivera said.

When they arrive at the border, most of the migrants already have someone to stay with in the U.S. and a job, he said.

Most never utter the word “asylum” but claim they’re afraid to return to Mexico, he said.

Illegal migrants have to pay off the lead cartel representatives in a region or town and are controlled by “coyotes,” who smuggle drugs and people into the U.S. and are known for their brutality, according to Rivera and Bayon.

“Every square mile is owned by somebody,” Rivera said.

Besides the risk of being robbed or raped by coyotes, many migrants die in the desert heat and drown in the rivers and canals.

“Everybody thinks about the river, but they forget about the canals, and a lot of people die in the canals,” some that are deep with swift currents that can “take you under,” he said. “In the summertime, we do a lot of rescues.”

Two weeks ago, the Border Patrol at Yuma responded to 10 rescue missions, an unusually high number, Rivera said.

A day before Title 42 restrictions were lifted, Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents 18,000 agents and support personnel, accused the Biden administration of misleading the public with its claim that people who cross the border illegally will be ineligible for asylum.

Judd called it “a half-truth at best.”

Rivera also criticized Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, for pointing out at a May 10 press conference that migrants can still claim asylum under reinstated Title 8 policies if they have a “credible fear” of returning to their country of origin.

“He basically gave them the playbook,” Rivera said.

While Rivera calls former President Donald Trump’s border wall more of “a tactical fence,” he said it allows the Border Patrol to respond more effectively because it funnels illegal cross-border traffic to specific areas agents can target.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Migrants prepare to be transported by bus to processing facilities in Yuma, Arizona, on May 18, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Rivera also criticized Mayorkas for failing to finish construction of the border wall to close the Yuma gap.

“If we had it completed, we would be able to control the traffic better and just focus on those areas, because we don’t have the manpower,” he said. “Back in the day before all of this chaos … you would see an agent every other mile. Right now, you’ll see an agent every five to six miles. The majority of the workforce is not out there trying to combat the cartels.”

Meanwhile, Mayorkas urged migrants not to risk their lives and life savings only to be turned away at the border and implored them not to trust human smugglers who’ve told them the border will be open.

“It will not be. They are lying,” Mayorkas said.

Title 42 Chaos

When Title 42—a Trump-era policy that restricted immigration for public health reasons during the pandemic—expired just before midnight on May 11, a Border Patrol agent who drove a bus was swarmed by migrants who wanted to board it, Rivera said.

“He had to step back, close the doors, and wait until he could get more backup out there,” he said.

The scene erupted into chaos as the migrants began arguing over who would be first to board the bus, Rivera said. Even some news reporters stepped away from the scene because they “felt unsafe,” he said.

The border wall and the combination of Trump-era Remain in Mexico policies and Title 42 restrictions helped to stem the flow of illegal immigration.

“Before he left office, our numbers were the lowest that they’ve ever been,” Rivera said.

But still, Rivera would like to see a return to enforcement policies that were in place before President Barack Obama’s catch-and-release plan.

In 2005, the Bush administration implemented Operation Streamline, under which migrants faced federal criminal charges for crossing the border illegally. It served as a “big deterrent” to illegal immigration, Rivera said.

The policies worked, he said, and the region saw a sharp decrease in cross-border crimes.

“But President Obama removed that, and then from there on out we’ve just been overrun,” he said.

Rivera dismissed the Biden administration’s claims it has operational control of the border.

According to Rivera, the Border Patrol in Yuma is so overwhelmed and understaffed, it can’t even keep track of illegal entries.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo A border wall area outside of Yuma, Arizona, on May 18, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Cartels Hiring Americans

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb told The Epoch Times he’s concerned about military-age men, mainly from Mexico and Guatemala, crossing the border illegally into his jurisdiction from neighboring counties such as Yuma, Pima, and Cochise south of Pinal.

Situated between Tucson and Phoenix, Pinal County has seen a 377 percent increase in traffic stops involving human smuggling, a 461 percent increase in pursuits involving human smuggling, and a 600 percent increase in fentanyl seizures, he said.

The cartels are paying Americans via social media to transport illegal migrants from southern U.S. border towns further north.

“They’re hiring kids and regular Americans to come down and pick them up. So those people are now employed by the cartels making $1,000 per person to drive them from Cochise County or the deserts of Pinal County up to Phoenix,” he said. “And they like kids, because if the kids get caught, they know the judicial system here in America is pretty lenient.”

Pinal County is more likely than Yuma to receive illegal aliens who are cartel members running drug and human trafficking operations in the U.S., Lamb said.

Human smugglers, known as “coyotes,” will wear camouflage and carpet shoes to improve their chances of going undetected in the desert.

“They run from us while we’re chasing them around in a helicopter,” he said.

When Lamb’s deputies stop suspected illegal migrants, they hand them over to the Border Patrol.

“We might be saving them from the cartels, enslaving them in the sex trade … or extorted them here in America. Even if they get released by the Border Patrol, at least they’re not in the clutches of the cartels anymore—at least temporarily,” he said.

The cartels “are so evil and so violent” and have no regard for human life, Lamb said.

Even smuggling people in the trunk of car is “inhumane,” he said.

“We had two vehicles with 25 people running in tandem,” he said. “We had three vehicles with 40 people in them … so that’s what we’re dealing with.”

The week prior in Yuma County, 6,700 illegal migrants from 44 different countries—including criminals and military-age men from Russia and Ukraine—were apprehended, Lamb said.

“They had a little bit of everything,” he said.

Yuma detention facilities are already 220 percent over capacity at 4,000 people, so migrants have been released throughout Arizona as well as in places like Riverside County, he said.

Lamb urged the federal government to bring back Trump-era border policies, because they worked, he said.

Aside from getting Mexico to cooperate, the U.S. needs “more boots on the ground” to patrol the border, Lamb said.

“And, we’ve got to finish the wall,” he said. “You can’t have all these gaps in the wall. We’ve already paid for it. I mean the walls just sitting there in piles in my county, and in several areas along the border. It’s just sitting there unfinished. You’ve got to use the technology that’s underground that hasn’t been turned on under this administration.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Migrants prepare to be transported by bus to processing facilities in Yuma, Arizona, on May 18, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times

Calls for Impeachment

Meanwhile, Republicans have renewed calls to impeach Mayorkas, who has repeatedly denied there is a border crisis and blamed Congress for failing to fix the “broken immigration system” for more than two decades.

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, (R-Calif.), told reporters on May 16 that Mayorkas has “failed at his job, and that Americans don’t believe him.”

He scoffed at Mayorkas’s claims that the border is secure while Americans watch news coverage showing of “thousands of people just walking into America.”

“Nobody believes that,” he said. “I bet if you hooked Mayorkas up to a lie detector test … he could not pass.”

Mayorkas dismissed Republican calls to impeach him in the House and told CNN’s Dana Bash he is focused on the work in front him.

America in Decline?

Yon, the former Green Beret, believes the U.S. is on the verge of disaster as the nation faces such a massive immigration problem, as well as an economic decline and food shortages.

It’s more than just an economic slump, he said, it’s a moral and social decline reflected in everything from rampant drug addiction and homelessness to human trafficking and the illicit sex trade to social media.

The border crisis, he said, is a deliberate attempt to overwhelm America and leave it vulnerable to aggressive authoritarian regimes such the Chinese Communist Party which has clearly stated its desire for world dominance.

Yon attributes much of the chaos to a worldwide “information war,” fueled by the World Economic Forum and China, and “weak men” who are either too complacent or too afraid to speak out against what he calls “invasion migration.”

Most Americans, he said, don’t see the border crisis from a global perspective as he does.

“I spent a lot of time in Europe, a lot of time in Asia. I spent more than half of my life down range, mostly out of the country—not in it,” he said. “The United States is collapsing, as is Europe.”

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