This week, Arizona 360 heard from the new chief patrol agent of Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. Roy Villareal took his post about a month ago to oversee the sector's 3,900 agents. He spoke to Lorraine Rivera about challenges with the ongoing influx of families seeking asylum from Central America, which he referred to as both a humanitarian and border security crisis.
"That vulnerable demographic of family units and unaccompanied children is what is causing our system to grind to a halt. Our facilities, the detention, the laws were all designed principally for single adults," Villareal said. "Until there is some sort of legislative change we're going to be in this quagmire in that we can't adjust quickly enough to address the flow."
During his 30 years with the agency, Villareal helped launch the Border Safety Initiative, which includes BORSTAR, the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue Team. The team provides first aid and performs rescues for immigrants crossing the desert. Deputy Commander Kelly Kirby said he believes the Border Patrol is prepared for the possibility that agents will likely encounter more Central American migrants in the desert during the summer months.
"As a team, we know that the majority of these people are coming from a tropic or subtropic environment into this arid environment, which increases the risk. They've also traveled a long way to get here," Kirby said. "I think this sector is prepared. It's got measures in place as well. We've handled the influx back when we had the crisis of Guatemalan children coming up from Central America when we handled it back four, five years ago."
Many immigrants from Central America have said they are fleeing economic hardships. In countries like Guatemala, agricultural woes have led to food scarcity and prompted questions about the role of climate change in immigration patterns. Arizona 360 learned more about this concept from Todd Miller, a Tucson-based author who covered the issue in his 2017 book, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security.
Climate researchers have tracked increased droughts in Central America for the past decade, according to Miller.
"They've been seeing droughts increasing in frequency and intensity throughout various places in Central America," Miller said. "What happens then is rains become much less reliable."
Miller said climate-related issues exacerbate other hardships migrants may be experiencing, such as extreme poverty.
Southern Arizona's Biosphere 2 is giving researchers at the University of Arizona the ideal model to research ways to help coral reefs impacted by climate change. Christopher Conover reports on the first stages of their experiment which involves clearing algae buildup in the Biosphere 2's indoor ocean.
A newly proposed program in Pima County would eventually help thousands of children attend quality preschools. The Pima County Preschool Investment Program (PCPIP) would offer full scholarships for all children ages three and four whose families fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For example, a family of four earning less than $50,000 a year would qualify. Arizona 360 learned more about the program from the Southern Arizona Leadership Council's Steve Lynn and Strong Start Tucson's Penelope Jacks.
"There's about 27,000 3- and 4-year-olds in Pima County. Half of those kids live under the 200 percent poverty level," Jacks said. "Of that half, 70 percent are children of color. It's children who are at risk who benefit most from high quality preschool."
Supporters say once the program is fully funded it could potentially serve more than 10,000 children. To start, they're asking the Pima County Board of Supervisors to allocate an initial $5 million in its budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
"Out of the existing county budget, which is over a billion dollars, we're asking the county to start with a very modest amount that would work for a couple of hundred of these children to start with," Lynn said. "We want to prove that this can happen at scale so it means that if we're successful we can go back to the county for multiple year funding and increases in funding."